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Homeowner stuck with $80k in damage from sewage backup after city denies responsibility

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Barbara Shepard Barbara Shepard

A main sewer line in Manitou Springs recently clogged and poured sewage into a homeowner's basement, causing nearly $80,000 in damage. 

The homeowner filed a claim believing the City of Manitou Springs would compensate her because the backup came from the line they maintain, but Manitou officials said "no", citing the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act

The law is meant to limit what government entities can be held liable for, and there are very few exceptions! 

Barbara Shepard, 85, is stuck with a big bill she can't afford. 

In February, a clogged sewer line spilled waste into her fully furnished basement where five people, including her granddaughter and two great grandchildren live. 

"It was a foul odor," Shepard said when she noticed the leak at 6:30 a.m. on Feb. 16. "They came with their Hazmat suits to clean it up. It was bad. Really bad." 

Shepard called Rich Coleman and his team at Black Label Restoration for assess the damage. 

"In general with back flows, you can see anything from gray water to what is considered sewage which is 'category 3,'" Coleman said. "Gray water is 'category 2', but this was a 'category 3' because it actually had debris involved with the backup." 

The contamination forced clean up crews to rip out carpet, floors, doors and even sheet rock. 

Black Label Restoration said just to remove the contaminated areas and make the home "safe" cost around $40,000. Coleman estimates it will cost an additional $20,000 to put the basement back together. 

Shepard also lost about $20,000 worth of personal property and furniture. 

What caused the sewage backup? 

Records obtained by News 5 Investigates show the city-maintained line was clogged by a tree root and hand towels someone had flushed down the toilet somewhere along the line. 

You can read that report here

Shepard said a city worker apologized for the damage and told her to file a claim. 

On March 15, the claim was denied under the "Colorado Governmental Immunity Act" which protects most municipalities across the state. 

Manitou Springs declined to explain the law, so we went to speak with the risk manager for the City of Colorado Springs. 

"It (the immunity act) is a mechanism that protects government entities and their employees from unlimited liability when claims are filed," Colorado Springs Risk Manager Victoria McCollum said. "Those claims are paid with tax payer dollars because government agencies are funded by tax payers." 

In order for Shepard to have a case, she would have to prove negligence on the city's behalf. 

According to the denial letter, the main sewer line was inspected 8 months prior to the backup. 

After the incident, a supervisor stated that the manhole where the backup happened should be inspected more frequently moving forward, but that's little comfort for Shepard who now owes Black label thousands of dollars. 

"I've been really considering where I'm going to find money to pay them," she said. "There just isn't any money. The only way I can get it is to possibly refinance my house and at my age, I don't know if I could get that." 

Coleman was surprised Shepard's claim was denied in the first place. 

"We would not have gone through trying to run up some bill and throw it at her after the fact," Coleman said. "We don't run that type of company. When we heard (believed) this was covered and that this was a root by the city and she had paperwork, we moved forward because we do have claims that are covered by the City of Colorado Springs and they are self insured."

In Manitou Springs, News 5 investigates found 9 claims filed for damage related to potholes and sewer backups since January 2015, yet only 1 claim was approved.

Comparing Shepard's denied claim to the approved claim, we found the sewer backups were similar in nature. However, it appears the city approved the other claim because the sewer line apparently had not been cleaned in decades. A worker documented the manhole where the backup occurred had been covered with asphalt and off the city's maps for 40 years.  

It's impossible to know if that was the only "unknown" line or if there are more. 

Manitou Springs City Clerk Donna Kast declined to talk with News 5, citing the possibility of litigation in the future. 

Coleman wants to avoid litigation and hopes the city makes the situation right. 

"I'd like to sit down and chat with the city and possibly come to some type of resolution," Coleman said. 

Meanwhile, Shepard is having to not only deal with the loss of her property, but a clean up debt she can't afford. 

"We felt pretty secure that Manitou's insurance was going to do something," she said. 

Shepard does have a homeowners insurance policy which capped her payment at $5,000 for sewage repairs. 

Since the city already denied her claim, she cannot file another claim and will likely have to take her case to court. 

News 5 will keep you updated on any new developments when new information becomes available. 

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