Sewage flooded Charlotte home in Google Fiber contractor mishap. Who pays for cleanup?

Charlotte woman discusses sewer leak caused by fiber contractor

Lisette Baumgardner talks about the extensive damage inside her Charlotte house when a contractor hired to lay down fiber lines hit a sewer line, causing a backup. In a separate case, Nancy Troutman and William Jamison of Charlotte say in a lawsui
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Lisette Baumgardner talks about the extensive damage inside her Charlotte house when a contractor hired to lay down fiber lines hit a sewer line, causing a backup. In a separate case, Nancy Troutman and William Jamison of Charlotte say in a lawsui

Nearly 18 months ago, a contractor installing Google Fiber struck a sewer line in the University area and created a ghastly mess, according to a lawsuit making its way through Mecklenburg County Superior Court.

Raw sewage flooded a nearby house, and more than a year later the homeowners still can’t move back in amid a dispute over who will pay for the clean-up, according to the suit.

The case is an extreme example of the damage that can occur as contractors build high-speed networks around the city. The suit also highlights the multiple parties involved in installing these systems – and the blame that can get passed around when something goes wrong.

Nancy Troutman and William Jamison, a married couple with a young daughter, are suing Google Fiber, three contractors that worked with the technology giant and their homeowners insurance company, according to the complaint filed in August 2016. One of the contractors responded with its own suit against the city of Charlotte and the company charged with marking utility lines before any digging began.

“It’s been quite challenging for them,” said Jeremy Foster, a Charlotte attorney representing the couple. “There is still bacteria and mold in the house. They have been out for a year and a half.”

Until the suit is resolved, the couple lacks the money to make necessary repairs, Foster said. A mediation session is scheduled for Tuesday, according to court records.

Many in Charlotte rejoiced when Google Fiber and AT&T announced plans in recent years for new networks that promise speeds up to 100 times faster than traditional broadband. But the massive, street-by-street construction project has proved messy for some homeowners.

The Observer reported in February that the city has sent contractors bills for more than $688,000 in repairs made to damaged water mains, cracked streets and other city property. The cost to private citizens isn’t known.

According to the suit filed by Troutman and Jamison, the contractors that did the work near their house worked for FTE Networks, which was partnering with two other contractors, Bechtel Infrastructure and S&N Communications.

On Oct. 23, 2015, FTE workers struck and damaged an underground “sewer lateral” located on Charlotte property directly in front of the home on Saxonbury Way, according to the suit. The house was flooded with an inch and a half of raw sewage, the suit says.

The city made repairs, but their home was exposed to “toxic substances,” including raw sewage, the suit says. “The plaintiffs and their daughter were forced to move from their home as a result of the contamination,” the complaint states.

Adding to their troubles, the couple’s insurance company, QBE, would only pay $10,000 under their homeowners’ policy, according to the complaint. The damages, however, “far exceed $10,000 and the home cannot be made livable for $10,000,” the suit says.

QBE has said the $10,000 would also apply to any additional living expenses, including hotel stays, according to the suit. The complaint seeks damages from the contractors and QBE, including punitive damages form the insurance company.

Google and Bechtel wouldn’t comment. Attorneys for FTE Networks, S&N and QBE did not respond to a request for comment.

In response to the suit, FTE in November filed a complaint against the city and the company that it hired to mark utility locations, One Call Concepts Locating Inc. As a result of One Call’s alleged failure to mark the sewer line, FTE “struck and damaged the sewer lateral which allegedly resulted in the damages to the plaintiffs,” FTE’s complaint states.

In court filings, the city of Charlotte said damages suffered by the homeowners were caused solely by One Call Concepts, while One Call Concepts has asked the court to dismiss the counter-claim.

The city of Charlotte wouldn’t comment on the litigation. An attorney for One Call did not respond to a request for comment.

Foster, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said he hopes for a quick resolution.

“For their sake, hopefully it will get resolved,” he said, “so they can get their house fixed and move back into it.”

Rick Rothacker: 704-358-5170, @rickrothacker

Who should you call?

If fiber installation is causing problems in your neighborhood, the city of Charlotte says to call 311 for assistance. Google also has a hotline at 877-454-6959. AT&T said it lists a phone number on the door hangers it uses to alert residents to upcoming work.

Rick Rothacker