Del. couple can sue water company over broken fire hydrant

John O'Brien Sep. 2, 2010, 11:40am


DOVER, Del. (Legal Newsline) - The Delaware Supreme Court has ruled for a couple that watched its house burn down because a paramedic broke the fire hydrant closest to it.

Joel and Iris Brown blamed United Water Delaware for painting over the top of the hydrant, hiding the arrow that showed how to attach a fire hose. The paramedic had tried to twist it in the opposite direction and broke the stem.

The Browns alleged the water company was negligent, negligently caused emotional distress and intentionally caused emotional distress. All three claims were dismissed by a trial court.

However, Justice Jack Jacobs wrote that a jury could decide United Water Delaware's actions constitute gross negligence.

"United Water's failure to correct those known problems, which could foreseeably 'cause damage or injury at any site reliant upon a United Water hydrant,' would constitute 'an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of care' -- i.e., gross negligence," Jacobs wrote

"That failure, however, would not constitute willful or wanton behavior, which we have defined as conduct reflecting a 'conscious indifference' or 'I don't care' attitude."

United Water Delaware had argued the language in one of its filings barred them from being held liable for fire damage.

The fire occurred in Dec. 2005. After the first hydrant was broken, firefighters tried a second one but determined it was frozen. A third hydrant was used, but it was too far away and the house burned.

The Fire Marshall's Office ruled the second hydrant was difficult to open because of a lack of maintenance. United Water Delaware's own inspectors had written it was "very hard to open" before the fire.

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