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Ditch Glitch

It was conceived in a warm, moist place. Since its birth, it has been festering in the dank recesses of the crawl space beneath Brenda Everett's home. As it matured, it started invading the rest of her house, its rancid odor seeping through any space that allowed.

The ranch-style house that Everett, her husband, Gerald, and their two daughters have lived in for five years has been filled with the putrid scent of mildew since last May, when a man who leases an irrigation ditch behind their Longmont home left the water running unattended for more than twenty hours. Instead of carrying the water to the man's home a mile away, the ditch dammed up. Leaves, sticks and other debris clogged the waterway, and it eventually overflowed onto the Everetts' lawn, soaked into the septic tank and filled the crawl space on the side of their house with 55,000 gallons of water.

The Everetts returned home from a vacation just before midnight on Saturday, May 16. Five hours later they were awakened by the sound of running water. "I thought it was raining and that water was trickling off the gutter," Brenda Everett says. "I looked out the window and saw that it wasn't raining, so I walked to the side of the house. My whole backyard was a lake. I opened the crawl-space door and heard what sounded like a waterfall. I just stood there in disbelief."

For eight hours, the Everetts ran an industrial-strength pump--on loan from their local water company--to get the water out of the crawl space. The saturated ground, Everett says, has caused her house to shift and reshift. The flooding has killed large patches of grass on her one-acre property. Inside the house, bulges and cracks decorate the ceiling and walls; floors are sloping; linoleum is popping up; the shingles on her roof are separating--all evidence of the flood damage, Everett says.

To the casual observer, those damages are evidence only of an old house settling--at least that's what Colorado Casualty Insurance Company is claiming. Colorado Casualty is the insurance company for Murray Powell, the man who left the ditch running without monitoring it.

According to the bylaws of the Rough and Ready Ditch Co., which owns the ditch and leases out "lateral ditches" that branch off a main ditch and extend into private farmland, whoever uses the lateral ditch is responsible for maintaining and monitoring it. Four people use the ditch that runs behind the Everett property (the Everetts do not). Brenda Everett says that Powell visited their property once after the flooding and told them that flooding is a risk they take by living near an irrigation ditch. Powell referred questions from Westword to Colorado Casualty.

The Everetts are seeking $300,000 from the insurance company to replace their house and an additional $200,000 to cover temporary living costs while their home is rebuilt, moving and storage expenses during that time and the cost of replacing the septic system. A few months ago the insurance company made the couple a verbal offer of $40,000--an amount Everett says is enough to cover just the home's cosmetic damages. The only money the Everetts have seen from the insurance company was $1,400 to defray some of last summer's clean-up costs.

Finally, in a March 3 letter to the Everetts regarding their ten-month-old complaint, the company assumed no responsibility but offered the couple $10,000 for their troubles. Doug Fylak, the Colorado Casualty field claim representative handling the complaint, said he could not comment on the case.

Because they've had no luck with the insurance company, the Everetts have turned to the Colorado Division of Insurance for help. The agency's letterhead states that "the mission of the Division of Insurance is consumer protection." But Brenda Everett doesn't feel protected.

The insurance commissioner has written letters to Colorado Casualty, informing the company that it needs to settle things in a timely manner and provide the division with reports on the home's condition. Staffers at the insurance division told Everett's husband that since the insurance company has offered to settle, all the division can do now is mediate and that if the Everetts are still unhappy with the amount, they can sue. "How do you find middle ground between $300,000 and $10,000?" Everett asks. "It looks like there's not a lot the insurance division can do."

Nancy Ryan, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Insurance Division, says that if an insurance company has violated state law, the division can fine the company or revoke or suspend its license. It can encourage insurance companies to settle with someone, Ryan says, but it cannot order a company to settle for a specific amount. The office handles 8,000 consumer complaints a year, but it does not keep a record of how many end to the consumer's satisfaction or to the insurance company's.

Everett claims that in its reports to the insurance division, Colorado Casualty did not provide all of the engineering reports and may have left out information regarding the damage to her home. She wants the insurance division to investigate Colorado Casualty for insurance fraud. Because the case is currently open, Ryan says, she can't comment on its status at the division. But when the division does investigate allegations of insurance fraud and finds evidence of criminal action, it turns the case over to the insurance-fraud unit of the Colorado Attorney General's office.

Ed Fronapfel of Gillans Engineering, a firm hired by Colorado Casualty to study the structural damage to the Everetts' house, says the Everett home has always had problems. "The crawl space is not properly ventilated, so any moisture that built up in the last twenty to thirty years would have gotten into the house," he says.

"There definitely was movement, and movement prior to the flood as well," Fronapfel adds, explaining that a number of clues, including the size and location of the cracks, indicate the house suffered previous structural damage. The 32-year-old house, he says, was just poorly built.

But Everett says that an inspector found nothing wrong with the home when they moved in.

And, she notes, in addition to the financial toll, the flooding has caused physical suffering. In the warm months following the May flooding, the Everetts kept the windows open to air out the house. But with the chill of fall, they closed the windows, and the white furry fungus that had been breeding in the damp crawl space all summer emitted a smell so foul it was "enough to knock you out."

The residue from the mildew has caused sinus infections, sore throats, coughs, fevers and constant headaches in all members of the previously healthy family, Everett says. Mike Wilson, the section chief of environmental toxicology at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, says it's common for people to be allergic to mildew.

Jim Lieberman, an industrial hygienist and president of Environmental Information Services Inc., tested the Everett home for humidity and mildew growth. "In their crawl space, there was sufficient biological material to provide what we call a reservoir of growth for mold, mildew, etc.," he says. In the sixteen-day lapse between when the Everetts ran out of clean-up funds and when the insurance company responded, Lieberman says, "the material could gestate and the contaminant could reach the occupants."

The Everetts may be left with no choice but to sue the insurance company, but it's not what they want to do; they shudder at the cost of going to court. But, Everett says, "we can't do nothing." For now, Everett is hoping the Boulder County Assessor will devalue the house so her family can pay lower property taxes.

The house, which is valued at $131,000, is now worthless as far as Everett is concerned. "I could not, in good conscience, sell the house," she says. "I don't know who in their right mind would want it."

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon

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