No safety net: How one disabled veteran fears losing Janesville home over $15K bill after city sewer line filled her basement

JANESVILLE, Wis. — There’s few headaches for homeowners that can match the stress of a sewage backup. For Maggie Haffrey in Janesville, however, the headache has dragged on now for nearly four months and threatens her ability to ever live in her home again.

There’s nothing she could have done on her own property to prevent a sewage backup that destroyed her basement in September. Roots from a different property grew into the city’s main line and created a blockage on Frederick Street, causing water and sewage to back into her home according to city documents.

But it’s Maggie that has to foot the $15,000 bill.

Maggie Haffrey

A disabled Army veteran who also worked for 25 years as a unit clerk at Mercy Hospital before health issues forced a retirement in her late 40s, at 67 she has spent much of the last two and a half decades raising her children, helping with grandchildren, and making jewelry.

Maggie lives on social security. She lost her husband years earlier; her daughter died of cancer earlier in 2020, and lived in Maggie’s care for the past six years. Still grieving and now alone at the home with her dog, she rarely made the trip downstairs if she could help it because of her disability.

It was a caretaker who found sewage floating in roughly two feet of basement water sometime shortly before September 16–though Maggie can’t recall the exact day. She called her insurance company, assuming help and repair estimates would begin there. On September 16 when she saw utility trucks on her street, she called the city. That day, they cleaned the blockage–and the water retreated from the basement.

“Once the main is cleared, all the sewer laterals that were connected to that that were backed up were drained,” Janesville utilities director Dave Botts explained. That’s when Maggie’s lateral was able to drain the backup back out to the main line–leaving her with an impossible task.

Experts would later tell her it wasn’t even safe to be in the basement, she said. The smell was still pungent when News 3 Investigates visited in late December. Dried sewage was still caked on parts of the floor; boxes, supplies, and storage items caught in the water when it first flooded sat spoiled. It’s physically painful for Maggie to guide the cameras down the stairs to show the place. Cleanup is beyond her; unfortunately, so are the costs of the repair.

Estimates for just the repair portion of the basement–not including some of the cleanup, or the pieces of equipment to replace like the furnace, washer & dryer, or sump pump–was estimated in October at $15,000.

“I just don’t have it. There’s no way of getting it,” Maggie explained. “Nobody wants to take responsibility or help. I don’t know if there’s anybody out there who can help or not. I don’t know who else to talk to.”

Fiercely independent, she kept living in the home for two months after the initial flooding until the November cold forced her out. She bought a small space heater to get by, washed her dishes in cold water, and tried to figure out the mess.

Showers were some of the most difficult, she recalled, particularly because of her disability that makes standing in the shower so hard. The water was cold; the sponge baths made it even worse.

The City
When the Janesville Water Utility Department got the call on September 16, a worker got photos of the basement and told Haffrey to “send her bills to the city,” she told News 3 Investigates. When the city responded to her claim by telling her they would reject it because the roots originated on a neighbor’s property and they didn’t have prior knowledge of the blockage, she was confused.

“This isn’t my fault. I didn’t cause the damage,” she said.

The city’s main line on that street was last cleaned in February, 2019 according to Janesville utilities director Dave Botts. DNR records indicate the city has received an ‘A’ grade for their wastewater utility management in both 2018 and 2019, with an expert ranking them among the top systems in the state.

Roots growing into sewer lines are a common reason for blockages that go on to cause sewage backups, both in Janesville and elsewhere. Janesville documentation notes that it’s the responsibility of the Water Utility Department to keep sewer main pipes “clean and flowing freely.” But that responsibility doesn’t become legal liability if the city doesn’t have knowledge of the blockage before it’s reported, Janesville assistant city attorney Tim Hellnitz said.

“It’s not at fault for that,” Hellnitz said of the city’s responsibility for the blockage in their main line that caused the damage in Haffrey’s basement. “The city did not do anything incorrectly. There is a main; there’s going to be obstructions sometimes. And the city can’t prevent any and every obstruction that can come up in a main.”

Municipalities are generally not held liable in Wisconsin for sewer blockages unless they caused the backup or have knowledge of a problem on the line and fail to fix it, legal counsel Claire Silverman for the Wisconsin League of Municipalities said. But the most recent summary of applicable law acknowledges that at least one court decision (Janzake v. City of Brookfield) has left a window open for municipalities to be found liable in scenarios where trees have created a blockage in a government-owned line. In that case, the plaintiff’s expert argued that cleaning of problem areas with a sewer rooter should be done bi-monthly, according to that legal summary from the Wisconsin League of Municipalities.

Another home had backed up at the same time from that root blockage, Botts said; otherwise, he “didn’t think” that place on the line was a trouble spot for tree roots.

A city’s liability in these types of cases hinges on whether they “ought” to have known but didn’t because they failed to do regular inspections or had some other indication a blockage was or might develop and didn’t take precautions, retired law professor Peter Carstensen said.

“It is not sufficient to say that [a city] did not know of a specific blockage,” he noted. In reviewing the legal summary of Wisconsin liability law in relation to these types of issues, he added that the tree roots issue was an example of a complex boundary problem between exempt “discretionary” decisions and nonexempt “mandatory” decisions.

“In an world of insurance, this has always seemed to me to be very questionable especially when the harms are often excluded from homeowner’s insurance coverage.”

The Insurance
An old insurance policy that changed hands in 2015 from Newark Mutual to All-Star had $1,000 in water backup coverage added at the time of the transition, insurance documents show. Previously unaware of the absence in her policy for substantial coverage for this scenario, Haffrey appealed to the Wisconsin Commissioner of Insurance, which proved futile because the claim had been handled correctly, they told her.

Water or sewage backup options hadn’t been discussed when she first set the insurance up, Maggie said, leaving her unaware of her coverage needs.

“They just…laid me out a plan, you know,” she explained. “I tried to get something without a real high deductible because I’m on a limited income–social security, you know.”

The standard home insurance policy doesn’t actually include coverage for sewage backups, University of Wisconsin-Madison Prof. Tyler Leverty of risk and insurance said. Instead, that type of coverage has to be purchased through a separate endorsement that typically ranges from $5,000 to $25,000 in allowed coverage.

“Insurance–that’s its whole role is to cover unforeseen, unknown things that are not the responsibility of a homeowner,” Leverty noted, emphasizing why this was an example of why using an agent or broker is beneficial when making coverage decisions.

“Either go through an expert, an insurance agent, or insurance broker to find proper coverage for yourself to make sure that you’re covered for these types of events,” he explained, “Or to become really well informed about what home insurance policies cover and do not cover.”

Maggie, meanwhile, says she’s exhausted her options. The backup wasn’t her fault. No one else will take responsibility. But on a fixed income, family equally unable to chip in, and few resources from the community groups, officials, and systems she’s reached out to–her home of almost 40 years feels like it’s slipping out of her grasp.

She’s living temporarily with her daughter. For the first two months after the backup, she stayed put–trying to solve the problem on her own with her limited resources.

“I was trying to get something done and not just abandon the house. I love my house,” she said. “I’ve had it for years, and raised my kids here. I don’t want to lose it. But I’m at the point I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”

Update: Local businesses and community members are volunteering time, services and money to help restore Maggie Haffrey’s home. Read more here.

Photojournalist Brian Mesmer shot and edited this report.