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by Ron Davis
Two Alabama towns have escaped blame for river floods that damaged a portion of a shopping center and three adjacent businesses.
The two towns are Vestavia Hills and Hoover, in suburban Birmingham, and the damage occurred in 2002 and 2004 as a result of torrential rains. The river that flows through those towns was overwhelmed on those occasions by the amount of rain that fell within a few hours.
The shopping center—Olde Town—and the three businesses suffered damages because of their proximity to that river. One of the tenants damaged the most and the adjacent businesses subsequently sued Vestavia Hills and Hoover, contending that the two towns assumed a duty to maintain the river, yet didn’t do enough to prevent the river from flooding.
Elected officials of the two towns pointed out, however, that the river existed long before the towns were incorporated as municipalities and that the area where Olde Town and the businesses are located has served as a natural flood basin for hundreds of years. The officials also pointed out that the developers of Olde Town knew of the river’s potential for flooding because they enlisted engineering firms to straighten, widen, and deepen the portion of the river flowing through the shopping center’s property.
The businesses and the tenant countered that they recognize that a municipality in Alabama has no duty to create or maintain a drainage system for a river. But they noted that once a municipality either constructs or maintains a drainage system, that municipality can be liable to a property owner for damages caused by negligent construction or maintenance of that drainage system.
A county court ruled, however, that the two towns did not have a duty to maintain the river. The shopping center tenant and the businesses appealed.
The Alabama Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling, explaining, “Surface water has flowed down adjoining mountainous terrain into and through the river for hundreds of years. There is no evidence indicating that Vestavia Hills or Hoover has constructed devices to direct water that would not otherwise naturally flow through or into the river…. Moreover, there is no evidence indicating that Vestavia Hills or Hoover constructed a drainage system that directed surface water, other than by natural drainage, into the river. We conclude that neither Vestavia Hills nor Hoover has undertaken a duty to maintain the river, because the towns have not purposefully directed into the river water that would not otherwise naturally flow through the creek.” (Royal Automotive, Inc. v. City of Vestavia Hills, 2008 WL 2153444 [Ala.])
Decision: May 2008
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