Judge finds village not at fault for broken sewer pipe

— Diagram from Des Moines Water Works

In a failed lawsuit brought against Voorheesville, the plaintiff contended that the village had inspected and approved the sewer line running from his home to village sewer lines even though it did not meet the requirements of the new local law, which said that the line should have been buried 60 inches below ground instead of the 46 it was found to be. A plumber with experience installing that kind of sewer system said that it was more likely that a heavy truck drove over the box that houses access to the sewer valve, pushing the rod down, causing the valve to crack.

VOORHEESVILLE —  A Voorheesville resident unsuccessfully sued the village, claiming it hadn’t properly inspected the sewer lateral at his home, which burst. A plumber who testified said it’s more likely the damage could have been caused by a heavy truck driving over the lateral.

Since construction of the home began in 2010, the village has changed its code, requiring that such pipe be buried deeper, at 60 rather than 48 inches, and requiring that the pipe be made of a more specific type of material.

Joseph Kowalski of 3 Quail Run had wanted to recover $722.30 in damages, according to court papers obtained by The Enterprise through a Freedom of Information Law request.

The case was heard in New Scotland Town Court by Judge David J. Wukitsch, one of two town justices, who dismissed Kowalski’s claim.  

According to Albany County records, Kowalski purchased his home in July 2013.

Three years later, according to the suit, in July 2016, Kowalski discovered sewage on the front lawn of his home. When the lawn was then dug up, a crack was found in the sewer lateral, and it was also discovered that the lateral had been buried approximately 46 inches below the ground.

A sewer lateral is the waste pipe that connects a private residence to a publicly-owned sewer line.

Kowalski’s contention was that the line should have been buried at a minimum of 60 inches, in accordance with the local law that went into in effect in March 2011. He also claimed that the lateral was not made of the high-quality material that was called for in the 2011 law, and he claimed that the village had inspected and approved the sewer lateral even though it did not meet the requirements of the new local law.

Kowalski claimed that the village’s negligence was a direct cause of the crack in the sewer lateral.

Expert view

Joel Vadney, of Vadney’s Underground Plumbing, testified on behalf of the village. In his decision, Wukitsch said that Vadney — with his decades of experience installing sewer lines and laterals — appeared to be a very credible witness.

Vadney had been a part of the excavation of Kowalski’s sewer lateral and had inspected the crack in the lateral. Vadney acknowledged that the sewer lateral had been buried about 46 inches below ground, but, in his opinion, the lateral did not crack as a result of the depth at which it was was buried nor did it crack because of the type of material used by the contractor.

Vadney testified that the most likely cause of the crack and subsequent leak was that a large vehicle had driven over the lateral.

According to Wayne J. Delpico, it is possible for a sewer lateral buried 4 feet below the ground to be cracked by a large vehicle driving over it.

Delpico has been an expert witness on a number of construction-related court cases. He is also an adjunct professor at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston.

“In my professional opinion, I do believe that a large truck could crack a pipe beneath the surface, even 4 feet down,” he wrote to The Enterprise in an email. “But this is only likely to happen if the soil above, beneath, and adjacent to the pipe was not compacted properly during the backfill process.”

Vadney described the situation to The Enterprise.

He said that the sewer system used in Quail Run is a pressurized system.

In that system, there are “curb boxes.” Inside these boxes — which are four or more feet below the ground — are rods that go from the shut-off valve to just below ground level; a special “key” is needed to access the rod and shut off service so that work can be performed on the residence side of the valve.

Vadney said that, if a heavy vehicle drives over the curb box, and the weight of that car or truck, or any other heavy object, pushes down on the rod with force, it could crack the valve.

This is what happened in Kowalski’s case, he said; the break occurred right next to the valve.

Code change  

Prior to the adoption of the 2011 sewer law, and in accordance with International Residential Code, laterals were to be installed not less than 12 inches deep or less than 6 inches below the frost line. In New York State, the frost line is 42 inches. So, the minimum depth at which a lateral could installed, prior to the 2011 sewer law, would be 48 inches — 2 inches lower than where Kowalski’s lateral was determined to be, at 46 inches.

Voorheesville added the requirement that sewer laterals be buried at least 60 inches below ground to the 2011 sewer law based on a recommendation from Barton and Loguidice, the village’s engineer.

So, at the time when the building permit for the home that Kowalski now owns was applied for, which according to the suit was Oct. 28, 2010, the sewer law in effect did not require that the sewer lateral be buried at least 60 inches below ground, and the material that the sewer lateral was made of was permissible.

In his decision, Wukitsch said that Kowalski “has not proven that the Village’s acts or omissions, if any, were the proximate cause of his damages,” and ordered that the small claim be dismissed.


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