$500,000 liability limit frustrates victims of water main break

Posted: April 13, 2014

PHILADELPHIA The dozens of South Center City residents and business owners trying to recoup damages caused by a massive water main break near 21st and Bainbridge Streets in 2012 are facing another threat to their compensation.

When a 48-inch main ruptured on a Sunday afternoon in July of that year, residents and business owners spent days dredging mud out of their basements and kitchens. The cleanup and repairs for the properties, many of them valued upward of a quarter of a million dollars, totaled nearly $2 million, and owners billed the city.

But the city's risk management office quickly pointed to the state law that sets the liability limit at $500,000 per incident.

The case was sent to Common Pleas Court, and last week Judge Mark I. Bernstein appointed his former boss, lawyer David Fineman, as a special master to sort through the claims and make a recommendation on how the money should be divided among the parties.

But once his work is done, that $500,000 will be even less - Fineman, whose hourly rate is more than $500, will be paid from the claimants' fund. He couldn't give an estimate for how much his work would cost, but said he would charge a reduced rate.

"I don't want to take away money from people," he said.

One of the claimants, Bruce Amos, is hoping that Fineman can work out some deal so that Peco, which has a claim for $869,992, doesn't take the lion's share of the $500,000, or any. Verizon withdrew its $3,068 claim but Peco is still moving forward, a spokeswoman said Thursday.

Since the 21st and Bainbridge incident, there have been a few other large water-main breaks, including a 48-incher below Frankford and Torresdale Avenues that flooded several car dealerships in December. The city is still processing claims for that event. More are bound to happen due to the age and heavy use of the lines.

State Sen. Larry Farnese, a Democrat whose district includes South Philadelphia, introduced a bill last summer to raise the cap, set in 1980, to $2 million. But the bill hasn't made progress in the Republican-controlled legislature.

In the meantime, Amos said, he and some of his neighbors would be pleased if they received half of what they claimed from the court.

"The solution to the problem, as it is now, is for City Council to appropriate money to make up the difference," Amos said.

City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who represents the area, plans to schedule a Council hearing in May to discuss what options might be available.

"The councilman wants to make sure they are made as whole as possible," said his spokesman, Thomas Mosher.


cvargas@phillynews.com

215-854-5520 @InqCVargas

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