The city of South Pasadena Thursday announced it will make a $200,000 payment to city resident Alison Smith to settle her four-year-old case against the city over responsibility for a January 11-12, 2018 sewage spill at her home on Hanscom Drive.
Sewage spilled from Smith’s sewer lateral clean out pipe and poured into the home’s backyard, where childrens’ toys were located. The city maintained the proximate cause of the spill was Smith’s failure to cap the clean out pipe, but the settlement includes the city’s first public acknowledgement that a city sewer crew on Jan. 12, 2018 “found a blockage in the city sewer main,” located downstream from the lateral line serving Smith’s property.
An image of the city’s main line near the Smith home shows a blockage was still present in May 2018.
The emotionally charged case has roiled and divided the city since a frustrated Smith made her case during public comment at the August 21, 2018, city council session that was followed weeks later by an aggressive code enforcement action at Smith’s home which identified a litany of alleged code violations. The city said the inspection was executed in response to a citizen complaint unrelated to the lawsuit, but Smith said it constituted retaliation instigated by former Mayor Marina Khubersrian, who had at one time been a friend of Smith, former city manager Teresa Highsmith and other city officials. She added a civil rights claim to her suit. The city tried to have the claim dismissed using an Anti-SLAPP motion, but Judge John Kralik denied it, resulting in an appeal from the city that was still pending when the settlement was announced.
The $200,000 payment will be deposited to an escrow account. Of that, $56.7 thousand will go to Smith and $4.5 thousand to her three children, while the rest will remain in the account to be used to cover the cost of a complete replacement of her 70-foot lateral line and a new backwater valve. Any remainder will go to Smith, who faces considerable legal bills for the three attorneys who have represented her at various points during the case.
Smith originally filed a claim against the city for $1,060,000 for property damage and injury damages on behalf of her children. The city’s initial counteroffer was $12,500.
Smith did not offer a comment Thursday night but said she would make a public statement in the near future.
The city issued a two-paragraph statement summarizing the settlement. It said the deal resolves alleged code violations it filed relating to the absent backflow valve and the condition of the lateral sewer clean out pipe. It also provides that these will be dealt with “in the context of the property owner’s existing code enforcement compliance plan” that Smith agreed to after the October 2018 code enforcement inspection.
Sheila Rossi, a friend of Smith who with her husband, former city council member Steve Rossi, took a strong interest in the case, called the whole matter “a travesty.” She said the city misused the anti-SLAPP law and called the settlement unreasonable. “Look at the settlement. Look at the number offered. Look at the legal fees. Look at the video of the lateral line they’re requiring her to ‘fix’ versus the video of the main line they refuse to fix,” she urged.
Stephen Rossi has argued repeatedly that if the city only complied with the terms of a 2011 consent judgement requiring it to take proactive measures to mitigate the possibility of a sewer overflow, the events at Hanscom Drive would have been averted. “The entire case was caused due to the city’s failure to follow the city’s own policies regarding how to respond to a sewer overflow,” he said in a Feb. 3, 2021, letter to the city council.
The city was unprepared to say how much it has spent on the Smith litigation. “Our legal work has not yet been completed,” Deputy City Manager Domenica K. Megerdichian told the South Pasadenan News. “Based on the city’s insurance coverage, the city has self-funded legal costs related to this matter.” She said the city is now seeking reimbursement from its carrier and “will seek to maximize our reimbursement.”