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Lamont Bair Enterprises, Inc. v. City of Idaho Falls

Supreme Court of Idaho

December 6, 2019

LAMONT BAIR ENTERPRISES, INC., an Idaho corporation, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
CITY OF IDAHO FALLS, a municipal corporation, Defendant-Respondent.

          Appeal from the District Court of the Seventh Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Bonneville County. Dane H. Watkins, Jr., District Judge.

         The district court's order granting summary judgment is affirmed.

          Beard St. Clair Gaffney, P.A., Idaho Falls, for appellant. Jared W. Allen argued.

          Hall Angell & Associates, LLP, Idaho Falls, for respondent. Blake G. Hall argued.

          BRODY, JUSTICE.

         This case addresses discretionary function immunity under the Idaho Tort Claims Act. Lamont Bair Enterprises initiated this lawsuit against the City of Idaho Falls after a broken water main cracked the cement floor and flooded the basement of the company's rental property. Lamont Bair Enterprises alleged the City neglected its water pipes and failed to maintain its water system in a reasonably safe condition. The district court ruled the City was immune from liability under the Idaho Tort Claims Act's discretionary function exception.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Lamont Bair Enterprises, Inc. ("LBE") is an Idaho corporation based in Idaho Falls that owns residential rental units. One of LBE's rental units is a four-plex rental property at 547 South Skyline Drive ("the Property"). The Property is served by municipal water lines owned and maintained by the City of Idaho Falls ("the City").

         On December 28, 2015, a municipal water main broke at the intersection of Brentwood Drive and Skyline Drive. The break caused water to flow beneath the Property's driveway, crack the concrete basement floor, and flood the basements of all four rental units. The City received an emergency call for assistance in shutting off the water. Believing the incident to be a service line leak (as opposed to a water main break), the City's response crew first closed the water service line and waited for confirmation that the water flow had stopped. After the crew received notice that water continued to flow into the basement, they isolated the leak to the water main and began repairing the main line. The repair order did not specify the condition of the pipe, only that the crew repaired the six-inch broken main line at a depth of four feet. The water was turned back on the following day, and the road and curb were filled back in. None of LBE's rental units ever experienced flooding from the city's water lines prior to this flooding incident at the Property.

         LBE contends that the water main "ruptured" due to negligent care-that "the City neglected its water system to the point that literally miles of pipe became past their design life and in need of replacement," thus failing to exercise reasonable care in maintaining the water supply system. In support of LBE's negligence claim, it cites to the property manager's deposition, in which he testified, "I [had] four dry, empty basements, and then after the water main was leaking or had ruptured, l had four wet apartments. Outside of that, I'm -- I don't know what else to tell." The City alleges there was a "shear break" in the water line caused by shifting soils due to deep frost penetration, thereby making the water line's break outside the City's control or ability to prevent.

         The City has over 314 miles of public pipeline, each made out of various materials, including asbestos cement, ductile iron, galvanized steel, and cast iron, each under the exclusive control and management of the City. The pipe at issue in this case was a six-inch cast iron pipe installed in 1958 or 1959, and had a life expectancy of 75 years. Thus, the pipe was approximately 56 years old and still within its original projected life expectancy. This pipeline was also located west of the Snake River where soil is allegedly "soft and sandy," thus allegedly making "an environment that is easy on the water lines" unlike the clay-based subsoils east of the Snake River.

         In 2014, the City retained the engineering firm Murray Smith & Associates ("Murraysmith") to help prepare a water facility plan, including plans for pipeline replacement and prioritization. The Water Facility Plan ("WFP") was adopted approximately six months before the flooding incident at the Property, but had been discussed and planned by the City for the preceding three years. The development of the WFP was "based on the City's resources, including manpower, machinery, budgetary constraints, and the public interest." The WFP recommended replacing the high priority pipes-the cast iron pipes installed between 1902 and 1959-within the next fifteen years to replace all pipes before the expiration of the water lines' life expectancies. In August 2015, the WFP was presented to the city council, with input from public comments and approval by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. The city council unanimously voted to adopt the plan, despite the resulting water fee increase, because the infrastructure was in need of repair.

         LBE points to several problems identified in the City's WFP: (1) the City's water department is understaffed, distributing 1, 633, 000 gallons per day per full time equivalent employee as compared to a national median of 210, 000 gallons per day per full time equivalent employee; (2) the City lacks official guidelines for system leak detections; (3) prior to the 2015 WFP, the City lacked a pipe replacement program; (4) the City has thirty years of data regarding water main breaks, which shows that 70 percent of those breaks occur in cast iron pipes installed between 1920 and 1959; and (5) previous data from 1950s cast iron pipe breaks described rusting and cracked pipelines, indicating "that the material is past its design life and [in] need of replacement."

         LBE filed a notice of tort claim, pursuant to the Idaho Tort Claims Act ("ITCA"), on June 16, 2016. LBE then initiated this action by filing a complaint and demand for a jury trial against the City, alleging negligence and arguing that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applied. The City filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the City was entitled to immunity under the ITCA's discretionary ...


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