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Water runoff lawsuit dries up in Supreme Court

Paul Snyder
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A Dodgeville homeowner waited too long to sue the city for approving a subdivision that caused water damage to his property, according to a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling.

The court on Friday upheld an appellate court ruling that Glen Hocking’s 14-year delay between the 1992 development and his 2006 lawsuit violated the state’s 10-year statute of repose. According to the statute, lawsuits seeking damages as a result of development must be filed within 10 years of construction.

Developers built the subdivision uphill from Hocking’s property, leading to water runoff on his land and mold growth in his home, according to court documents. Hocking moved in 2004.

But, according to court documents, Hocking did not sue until 2006 because City Council members told him they would fix the problem. The city never took formal action.

“Obviously, we’re gravely disappointed,” Hocking’s attorney, Chris Stombaugh, said of Friday’s decision. “It has terrible ramifications for the people of Wisconsin because it basically says your government can string you along.”

Edwin James, a member of the City Council who met with Hocking in the 1990s, said he was happy with the court’s decision.

“It wasn’t the City Council that was stringing him along; it was the insurance companies,” James said. “Any time we have an insurance claim, we turn it over to our insurance company. If we were to pay for this, we’d have to pay for a lot more in the future.”

James said he never told Hocking he or the City Council would take care of the runoff problem.

In the decision issued Friday, Justice Michael Gableman wrote that a person who deals with a municipality “does so at his or her own risk,” and that the facts of the case could not excuse Hocking from the state’s 10-year window.

Ed Huck, executive director of the Wisconsin Alliance of Cities, said if the court found Dodgeville responsible for damages caused to Hocking’s property, it would have opened the door to more lawsuits against cities over approved projects, no matter when those projects were approved.

“It would have undermined the entire statute,” Huck said. “That would have been a disaster waiting to happen.”

Stombaugh said he needs to discuss the decision with Hocking before deciding to fight further. Hocking could request reconsideration by the Wisconsin Supreme Court or take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court was legally right in its decision Friday, Stombaugh said, but morally wrong.

“It’s just the wrong message to send to public officials, to say they can take advantage of people like that,” he said. “Public officials are supposed to be public servants.”

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