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Kellogg v. City of Albia

Supreme Court of Iowa

March 9, 2018


         On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Monroe County, Randy S. DeGeest, Judge.

         The City of Albia seeks further review of a court of appeals decision that concluded it was not immune from a homeowner's nuisance suit and the statute of limitations did not bar recovery for claims related to flooding that occurred within two years of filing suit.

          Zachary C. Priebe and Jeffrey S. Carter of Jeff Carter Law Offices, P.C., Des Moines, for appellant.

          Sarah E. Crane and Michael C. Richards of Davis, Brown, Koehn, Shors & Roberts, P.C., Des Moines, for appellee.

          CADY, Chief Justice.

         In this appeal, we must decide if a city is statutorily immune from a homeowner's nuisance claim stemming from reoccurring flooding in the basement of her home due to the discharge of rainwater from a storm sewer located near the home. The district court granted summary judgment for the City, and the court of appeals reversed the decision of the district court. On further review, we vacate the decision of the court of appeals and affirm the decision of the district court. The statute granting immunity to municipalities for tort claims based on claims of negligent design and construction of public improvements and facilities, or failure to upgrade public improvements and facilities, does not bar all claims for nuisance. It does, however, bar those nuisance claims based on conditions created by public improvements and facilities designed and constructed pursuant to generally recognized engineering or safety standards in existence at the time of construction and without evidence that the harmful condition creating the nuisance was inherent in the operation of the improvement or facility itself or evidence of negligent conduct other than the designated conduct immunized under statute.

         I. Factual Background and Proceedings.

         In 1972, the City of Albia constructed a storm sewer system in an area of town as part of a comprehensive development plan. It installed a twelve-inch storm sewer pipe along 4th Avenue E, with intakes on the north and south curbs. The storm sewer intercepted the natural overland flow of water in the area and day-lighted on the north side of 4th Avenue E. The City sized the sewer system to accommodate a two-year recurrence interval storm. It designed and constructed the storm sewer system in accordance with the generally recognized engineering and safety standards of the early 1970s.

          In 1983, a house was constructed on the parcel that contained the day-lighted storm sewer pipe. The house was positioned on the property so the exposed pipe was located in the front yard and pointed towards the home. In 2008, Wilma Kellogg purchased the home. At the time of the purchase, she was informed the basement had "flooded one time up the drain, " but a sump pump had been installed to address the problem. Prior to closing, Kellogg paid for half of the cost of removing moldy drywall from the basement of the home.

         Between 2009 and 2015, the basement flooded after rainfall on eight or nine occasions. During the flooding, Kellogg experienced water across the furnished portions of her basement, as well as near the hot water heater. Often, water leaked down the wall of the basement's crawl space. Mold began to appear on the drywall, and photographs of the basement show multiple mold growths near a wall electrical outlet. Photographs also demonstrated a ponding effect on Kellogg's lawn during heavy rainfall.

         In 2010, frustrated by the repeated flooding, Kellogg contacted the City to request a remedy. Although the mayor and members of the city council met with Kellogg and assured her they would look into possible solutions, the City never followed up with Kellogg about the flooding. Kellogg subsequently contacted the City about the flooding in 2012, 2013, and 2014, but never received any assistance. While waiting for the City to take action, Kellogg's basement continued to flood following periods of heavy rainfall.

         On February 25, 2015, Kellogg filed an action against the City in district court. She alleged the flooding constituted a nuisance and that the City was negligent in installing the storm sewer pipe. The City filed a motion for summary judgment. It asserted Kellogg's claims were barred by the state-of-the-art immunity given to municipalities under Iowa Code section 670.4(1)(h) (2015) and the applicable two-year statute of limitations under section 670.5.

         The district court granted the motion. It found the facts were undisputed that the storm sewer was built in accordance with the accepted and generally recognized engineering standards and criteria at the time of construction. Therefore, the state-of-the-art defense granted the City immunity from Kellogg's nuisance and negligence claims. Additionally, it concluded the statute of limitations also barred the lawsuit, finding that the period of limitations did not begin anew after each incident of flooding but began to run after the first incident of flooding in 2009.

         Kellogg appealed. She claimed the immunity statute did not apply to her claim for nuisance, but only applied to claims based on negligence. She also claimed the statute-of-limitations period ran anew from each incident of flooding. Kellogg did not appeal from the dismissal of her claim based on negligence and did not contest the finding of undisputed facts made by the district court in ruling on the motion for summary judgment.

         We transferred the case to the court of appeals. The court of appeals reversed the decision of the district court, concluding Kellogg established a genuine issue of material fact that a nuisance was created or was being maintained by the City's operation of the storm sewer, without regard to design or specification defects. The City applied for, and we granted, further review.

         II. Standard of Review.

         We review a district court's ruling on a motion for summary judgment "for correction of errors at law." Sanon v. City of Pella, 865 N.W.2d 506, 510 (Iowa 2015) (quoting Ne. Cmty. Sch. Dist. v. Easton Valley Cmty. Sch. Dist., 857 ...

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