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Westmont family to water authority: 'One last chance' to pay for damage from sewage flood

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – A Westmont Borough family whose home was flooded by sewage in November due to a blocked sewer main owned by the Greater Johnstown Water Authority on Thursday gave the authority a warning – pay for the damage or face the consequences.

John and Anne McGrath told the authority’s board of directors at its regular monthly meeting that it has until June 2 to resolve the damage with full compensation – or, they said, they would release evidence that they said could prompt legal and regulatory action, including what they alleged was evidence of possible bad-faith denial of insurance coverage.

In addition, they said, they would have their attorney release “additional and damaging evidence” to the media and state elected officials.

John McGrath addresses the Greater Johnstown Water Authority's board of directors on Thursday May 25, 2023. 

The flood at the McGraths’ home of 30 years on Luzerne Street caused what they estimate conservatively was more than $60,000 in damage.

John McGrath said that their homeowner’s insurance agency, Donegal Insurance Group, covered the maximum it could under their policy – $5,000.

That left the McGraths with $7,000 left to pay on a $12,000 cleaning bill from Servpro.

McGrath said that Servpro called the catastrophe an “eight out of 10.”

Other damage – including walls stripped to the studs, as well as ruined appliances and precious family items – is involved in the McGraths’ $62,000 damage estimate.

The authority’s management company, RDM, and its insurance agency, Gallagher Bassett, have claimed immunity under Pennsylvania’s Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act.

John and Anne McGrath show their basement that was hollowed out after an estimated 6,000 gallons of sewage from the neighborhood backed up into it, causing an estimated $60,000 in damage, according the the McGraths. A clogged sewer main owned by the Greater Johnstown Water Authority was the source of the problem. However, the Greater Johnstown Water Authority's insurance company has denied McGrath's damage claims.

The McGraths are fighting the insurance company, Gallagher Bassett. They say it would set a bad precedent if the company is able to avoid responsibility.

John McGrath said that he has obtained evidence through Right-to-Know requests and conversations with the authority’s subcontractors to show, he alleged, that RDM and Gallagher Bassett took actions that would pierce the immunity under the act and perhaps would prompt legal and regulatory action.

“It’s up to the board to literally clean up this mess that RDM and Gallagher have created and do the right thing,” he said. “We are reasonable people who are easy to work with, and we have patiently done things by the book to resolve this. We are offering the board one last chance out of this mess.”

The board of directors represents the municipal ownership of the authority, which is owned by Westmont Borough, Southmont Borough and the City of Johnstown.

“RDM and Gallagher have really let you down,” McGrath told the board. “RDM never even had the courtesy to call us back and explain what happened. We had to call them 36 hours after it happened. They didn’t even offer to clean up their filth.”

Gallagher Bassett denied the McGraths compensation in a voicemail and a follow-up email, both of which the McGraths shared with The Tribune-Democrat.

Gallagher Bassett’s email informed the McGraths that the source of the damage came from the water-authority-owned sewer main under Luzerne Street, but said that the water authority was immune to liability.

Westmont Borough | Flooded Basement

Westmont Borough residents John and Anne McGrath stand in their basement where six thousand gallons of sewage, measuring 15 inches, flooded the space in November 2022. Photo taken on Friday, May 12, 2023.

“Our investigation revealed that unknown parties had permitted or placed grade 2B stone and soil in the sewer system, which caused a damming effect in the sewer main, which caused the backup into your home,” the email said.

“There is no question as to the stones being the cause of the backup. (The water authority) had no notice of the presence of the stones or any other dangerous conditions of their sewer main prior to this incident ... as such, the circumstances of this claim will not pierce the immunity afforded to the Greater Johnstown Water Authority under the (Pennsylvania Political Subdivision Tort Claims) Act.”

McGrath said the claim that the authority had no way of knowing there might be problems with the sewer system was “a flimsy excuse.” He asked the board members to raise their hands if they believed there were no problems with the system. None raised their hand.

Board members and RDM resident manager Michael Kerr did not respond after McGrath’ public comments.

The meeting continued with other business, much of which related to the ongoing sanitary sewer overhaul in progress to eliminate sewage overflows at the Dornick Point Wastewater Treatment Plant in Johnstown. The water-authority-owned systems in Westmont and Johnstown are tied into that system.

The project has been ongoing since 2009, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s deadline set for completion is December 2024.

The Greater Johnstown Water Authority purchased Westmont’s sewer system from Westmont Borough Council in April 2022.

Kerr obliquely touched on issues related to the McGraths’ situation during his manager’s report as he emphasized “just a couple other additional facts” about the amount of sewer main that has been jetted and inspected.

“This is one year, almost to the day, that we started the operations of the system in Westmont Borough,” he said, “and just alone in Westmont we have inspected over 61,000 feet of main ... which would put us on track to have that entire system inspected inside three years, which is a very proactive pace to have that amount of main inspected.

“Typically, a system would have a goal of every five years, and that goal is very rarely met by any public system, but we are on pace to have it done inside three years. We are well ahead of schedule there.”

After the meeting, the board held a private executive session to talk about “pending litigation.”

After the executive session, Kerr said that he declined to comment about the circumstances of the flood at the McGraths’ home.

Russ O'Reilly is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @RussellOReilly.

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