AUSTIN (KXAN) – Chris Laclede could smell the problem in his bathroom before he saw it bubbling up into his tub in late April.
There was “fecal matter. It was brown. There were things floating around in it,” Laclede said.
Laclede, 62, rushed a plumber to his home in the Johnston Terrace neighborhood of east Austin. The plumber snaked a camera down the wastewater line.
“Once he found the clog, right here, basically where my pipes and the city pipes all meet, he said we need to call the city so they can see what the situation was,” Laclede told KXAN as he pointed down at a section of rebuilt sidewalk where workers dug in front of his home.
City workers with the Austin Water Utility arrived that same day. After their own camera inspection, city workers determined the problem was in Laclede’s pipes. That meant Laclede had to fix it, according to email exchanges KXAN obtained.
But – after Laclede paid a plumber more than $1,000 to excavate the pipe – he learned the city’s assessment was wrong. The blockage originated on the city’s side, and the city would need to fix it, according to emails and the city.
Once the city realized its error, utility workers promptly repaired the pipe. Laclede, however, still had a $1,200 dent in his bank account.
In the weeks that followed, Laclede tried to get repaid. He said the encounter left him feeling like the city didn’t care about his situation and its process for handling claims is unfair and lacks recourse, he said.
“I don’t think they really gave me any kind of suggestions, any kind of help to clean it up, any kind of resources or anything,” Laclede said. “There was nothing there.”
It wasn’t until KXAN began asking questions that the city offered Laclede financial relief.
‘Judge and jury’
Before KXAN became involved, Laclede opted to file a claim against the city to recover his money. He figured the city should reimburse him because it was the city’s mistaken judgment that led him to pay a plumber to excavate the pipe.
Not quite, according to the city’s legal department. The city promptly denied his claim in May, citing immunity from liability for property damage – except damage caused by negligent operation of motorized equipment – under the Texas Tort Claims Act.
Laclede said he asked how to appeal and was told there is no appeal process.
“There’s nothing you can do; that’s the way the law is written,” Laclede said. “I didn’t think that was right – that the city could be both the judge and the jury in this situation.”
After KXAN began asking questions about the case, an Austin Water spokesperson said it would repay Laclede for the plumbing expense.
“We know that our crews responded promptly to investigate the cause of this sewer back-up and to make repairs required on city infrastructure,” wrote Austin Water spokesperson Emlea Chanslor in an email. “When we are dealing with underground pipes that are not visible, it can be challenging to determine the source of a blockage. In this case, the initial diagnosis from the Austin Water crew turned out to be incorrect.”
It is not clear exactly what sparked the city’s decision, provided by the water utility, to pay Laclede, but the choice was made after KXAN filed requests for records through the Texas Public Information Act and began asking the city questions about the claim process.
A city spokesperson told KXAN, if a person is unsatisfied with a claim decision they can file a lawsuit against the city.
But what if a person doesn’t have enough money to hire an attorney, or the cost of an attorney exceeds the amount of the claim?
That’s a common dilemma, said Fred Fuchs, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. A person would have to decide if they want to represent themselves and file a lawsuit in a Justice of the Peace Court, where claims are capped at $20,000. Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which operates in 68 counties across the state, is a nonprofit that provides free legal services.
Since the city has no appeal process, “There is no good recourse,” Fuchs said. “If the claim is barred by sovereign immunity, and the City will not pay because of sovereign immunity, and publicity will not cause the City to change its mind on payment, I would tell the person to move on.”
In response to Laclede’s general concern that the city is “judge and jury” of the claim process, Fuchs said “the City Attorney represents the City” and “it is not fair.”
The sovereign immunity law isn’t meant to be fair, he said. “It is meant to protect the sovereign – the taxpayers as a whole.”
There were nearly 3,000 claims filed against the city of Austin from 2018 through mid-2021, according to data KXAN obtained last year. About 70% of the claims were denied, 20% were paid and the remaining 10% don’t have a clear outcome, according to the city’s records.
Of the claims that were paid, 80% were labeled as auto-accidents, 11% were for negligence and 4% related to “mowing and weed eating,” city data shows.
Fuchs said Laclede’s experience will remain common, unless changes are made to the law, such as cutting back sovereign immunity protections or creating an administrative appeal process for people whose claims are denied.