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County weighs flood damage lawsuit

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Water everywhere: Sheriff Mike Shepherd (left) and police chief John Jester surveyed the drying process after the basement flooded at the Hancock County Jail.
Water everywhere: Sheriff Mike Shepherd (left) and police chief John Jester surveyed the drying process after the basement flooded at the Hancock County Jail.

GREENFIELD — A dispute over flood damage to the Hancock County Jail might make its way to court.

Tuesday, Hancock County Commissioners hired an attorney to consider suing Milestone Contractors for damages to the jail nearly a year ago.

Last March, torrential rains caused runoff to wash down a ramp leading to the jail’s basement. A garage door at the base of the ramp buckled, and water rushed in. Offices and other areas were soaked, damaging drywall, cabinets, carpeting and more.

At fault, commissioners argue, is Milestone Contractors. The company had just begun work on the downtown streetscape project, and crews had placed fabric over the tops of storm drains and surrounded the drains with sandbags.

The effort was to comply with federal clean water laws to prevent silt and sediment from reaching Potts Ditch and Brandywine Creek. But commissioners say if the drains hadn’t been blocked, the flooding never would have occurred.

“They definitely blocked the storm drain, which in turn caused the flooding, and we feel like they should be held responsible for that,” said commissioners President Derek Towle.

Damages totaled nearly $60,000, Towle said. A new garage door was installed, along with new cabinets and carpeting.

While officials originally thought they could file a claim with the county’s insurance carrier, they found the deductible is $100,000. So, county government had to foot the entire bill.

For months, commissioners talked about how to recoup the costs. An invoice was sent to Milestone, but the company did not offer to pay. County attorney Ray Richardson spoke with Milestone’s insurance adjustor, who also did not think the company should be held responsible for the damages.

Tuesday, commissioners hired local attorney Kevin Harvey to pursue the issue further. Towle said while the county is preparing to file a lawsuit against Milestone, it will take time to determine how much in damages will be sought and when the suit will actually be filed.

“The attorney will research the laws and figure out if we actually have a case,” Towle said.

Towle added that he’s not sure whether the city of Greenfield or the Indiana Department of Transportation would also be named in a lawsuit. Both had been involved in the downtown city streetscape project.

A representative from Milestone Contractors did not return a phone call Tuesday afternoon.

Commissioners agreed to pay Harvey on contingency. He will get 35 percent of the award of the lawsuit if it is settled, or up to 50 percent if it is taken to court or settled out of court within one month of the trial date.

Harvey said the lawsuit would be filed in a Hancock County court, and he feels confident about the county’s chance of winning.

“There’s no question that the county sustained significant damage to the basement of the jail including not only the walls and drywall and flooring, but to also the furniture and personal property in the basement,” Harvey said. “I think it’s pretty clear what the cause of it was in terms of the blocking of the drains along Highway 40.”

In addition to damages to the building, the county may also include personnel hours in the lawsuit. Jail staff and inmates assisted in the cleanup; Harvey said he will ask the sheriff’s department to calculate how many hours were spent on the work.

While the materials were placed to prevent sediment from reaching drains, Harvey argues it was done the wrong way.

“They definitely did have to protect erosion from happening, but I believe they would have had other alternatives other than … setting up erosion control by blocking the drains themselves,” he said.

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