In order to successfully assert negligence, a plaintiff must generally prove four elements: duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages. However, certain evidentiary and negligence doctrines allow a plaintiff, in certain circumscribed situations, to win on a negligence claim without proving all or some of the aforementioned factors. Among these doctrines is res ipsa loquitur, a evidentiary rule that generally provides that a plaintiff can create a rebuttable presumption of negligence when he or she is harmed and proves that the harm suffered does not generally occur in the absence of negligence, that the instrumentality causing the harm was under the control of the defendant, and that no other conceivable reason for the occurrence of the harm exists. This doctrine was raised in a recent opinion from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Battlefield Investments, Inc. v. City of Lafayette (PDF-embedded link), which involved a municipal defendant’s liability for a sewage backup that damaged property owned by the plaintiff.
The sewage backup at issue in this case occurred on September 21, 2009. On that day, the City of Lafayette, Georgia was experiencing torrential rainfall. This unprecedented rainfall caused flooding that the National Weather Service described as “historic” in proportion. Given the extent of the rainfall, the city’s sewer system was overwhelmed, and the manholes near the property where the sewage backup occurred were completely submerged in water, which would prevent the city from taking any corrective action to avoid possible sewage backups. This infiltration of rainwater into the sewer lines can create back flow into toilets in residential and commercial properties, and such a backup happened at a building owned by Battlefield Investments, Inc., the plaintiff in this action. However, and fortunately, there were no other complaints of sewage backups at any other property within the city.