‘Sewage flooded our garden but Southern Water won’t replace my children’s contaminated toys’

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Dear Katie, 

On Hallowe’en last year my husband called me over to the bottom of our garden and said in an ominous voice: “We have a problem.” To my horror he was pointing at a river of sewage flowing out of the main drainage cover at the back of our garden and down the side of our fence. The smell was truly appalling.

We immediately contacted our water supplier, Southern Water. It said it was very busy and would come to assess the problem when it could. The following morning someone arrived and discovered a blockage in the sewer. It was a disgusting buildup of fat and wipes known as a “fatberg”. 

This was duly cleared. Cameras were ordered to ensure that all the blockage had been removed and our garden was disinfected. Two weeks later Southern Water also replaced the contaminated slate and shingle in our garden, which we were happy with.

But when we asked about the contents of our garden, including firewood, a barbecue and children’s toys totalling around £1,000 which had been contaminated by the sewage, we were told to claim on our home insurance. We have been back and forth between Southern Water and our insurance company and, from what we can make out, if we make an insurance claim we will have to pay a £500 excess and our future premiums will be affected.

I want to know why Southern Water is prepared to clear the blockage and sanitise our garden but continues to evade its responsibility to replace our garden contents. I should add that before this incident our neighbours had been in contact with Southern Water with regard to the drains being blocked. This was not successfully resolved and as a result all of our problems have fallen under the same reference number.

TVT, Kent

Dear Reader, 

You sent me a sickening video showing murky brown water peppered with used loo roll and wipes bursting up through a manhole cover. Southern Water was extremely keen to highlight how your case went to show why only the “three Ps” should go down the lavatory (pee, poo and paper, in case you hadn’t guessed).

But when it came to the matter of replacing your soiled garden items, it was somewhat less enthusiastic. That said, following my intervention someone from customer services offered you a £250 “gesture of goodwill”, which will pay for half of your insurance excess. But Southern Water said it would do no more as it was not liable for the sewage river. 

This, it said, was because the fatberg was not its fault but the fault of either you or your neighbours for putting things you shouldn’t down the lavatory.

I said I didn’t think this sounded fair and then one of Southern Water’s lawyers stepped into the conversation. She sent me a copy of the Water Industry Act 1991 and suggested I ask my own legal team to interpret it. The Act states that sewerage undertakers such as Southern Water are not legally liable for flooding that occurs as a result of events such as blockages, factors leading to which it cannot control.

Sure. But it also states that this is only in the absence of negligence. In your case you say your neighbour had been on at Southern Water about a blockage for weeks and it had not been resolved. I do not need legal training or support from lawyers to question whether in fact Southern Water may have negligently failed to fix the blockage earlier.

It may be keen to blame residents for flushing wipes and pouring fat down the sink, but the reality is that fatbergs are an incredibly common problem. When suspected problems come to light, there is a reasonable expectation that water firms should step in to do the necessary maintenance on pipes and sewers. Anything less could surely be considered as negligence.

Disappointingly, though, Southern Water didn’t seem to want to engage with me on this point. It has offered no evidence that it acted on your neighbour’s warnings. However, as I cannot prove it didn’t act when it should have, and because a number of my emails have now gone unanswered, your case has hit a crossroads.

So far Southern Water has paid for the cleanup of your garden and for shingle and slate to be replaced, and it has given you £250 towards the replacement of your belongings. But it has stopped short of refunding you for your consequential losses in full. After pocketing the £250 payout from Southern Water, you will still have to pay £250 in excess charges if you choose to claim on your insurance.

If you don’t like the sound of this, there is one other option. You could go via the small claims court and try to recover the remaining £750 in consequential losses you’ve suffered as a result of Southern Water’s potential negligence. This would cost you around £70 and is a relatively straightforward process. Good luck with whatever you decide to do.

A spokesman for Southern Water said: “We are sorry our customer has had a distressing experience and understand how upsetting this is. As we cannot control how sewers are used and what is put in them, we are not legally liable for damage caused by discharges that happen as a result of blockages.”

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