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$150,000 of Damage, Harrowing Valrico Lawsuit Hurled at Hillsborough County

August 30, 2020

By: Deborah Childress

VALRICO, Fla. – A lawsuit has been filed on behalf of Valrico couple William and Kyong E. Laslo who once resided at 2803 Bloomingdale Avenue.  It tells the story of how an alleged, faultily designed and improperly maintained stormwater pumping station, known as Pump Station 36 on Stearns Road, led to over $150,000.00 of damage to their property.  Citing violations of their Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment property rights under the U.S. Constitution, it claims that the Defendants, Hillsborough County and Southwest Water Management District and its governing board, allegedly breached their duty to warn of, or avert a dangerous condition, trespassed, and acted negligently and as a public and private nuisance before and during 2017’s Hurricane Irma.  It also alleges that after the storm, Hillsborough County was despondent to the couple’s numerous formal requests for Pump Station 36’s maintenance and operating records, and guilty alongside Southwest Water Management District of inverse condemnation by not justly compensating the Laslos for home and property damages.  Hillsborough County is a Defendant in the case because it is vested with the power of eminent domain and is legally responsible to maintain and operate water pumping stations.

Aggressive new home construction in the couple’s residential area, where they had resided since 2003, required the installation of an additional stormwater pumping station to control increased water flow and removal demands.  It was constructed much later and was somehow left disconnected to a power source around the time that Hurricane Irma approached.  Hillsborough County, it is claimed, failed to notify the Laslos that Pump Station 36 was inoperable, although a GIS-based service system informs the County Public Works Department of any problems.  Hillsborough County also neglected to maintain and ensure that the water pumping station worked.  As a result, the couple’s property suffered catastrophic Hurricane Irma flood damages and threatened electrocution of the Laslos as they fled from their home unexpectedly at 2:30 in the morning.

When the Laslos purchased their home in 2003, their property was zoned as “Flood Zone C.”  However, in 2004 a mass flood hit the area, which the Laslos later learned was due to massive residential building activity that required an additional water management system to be installed.  Hillsborough County reacted by installing a temporary water pump station on Stearns Road.  Four years later in 2008, the Laslo property was re-zoned as “Flood Zone A.”  It was 2010 before Southwest Water Management District requested a permit from Hillsborough County to construct a permanent water management system to be completed, operated and managed by the Hillsborough County Public Works Department.  This action occurred six years after the flood, and two years after the Plaintiff’s property and its surrounding area were re-zoned as “Flood Zone A.”  The new water management system – Pump Station 36 – was not completed until 2012. 

As Hurricane Irma approached on September 10, 2017, Plaintiff William Laslo contacted Hillsborough County Public Utilities to ensure that Pump Station 36 was properly pumping water in light of the approaching storm.  Unable to reach anyone, Mr. Laslo left a message.  No one returned his call.  It was then on September 11th at 2:30 a.m. the Laslos were forced to flee their home.  Water entered the house while it had full electrical power.  The lawsuit states, “Plaintiffs were very frightened and believed there was an eminent chance of electrocution…” 

To inspect damage from the flooding, Mr. Laslo later contacted his realtor, who provided a boat to inspect the property and retrieve personal belongings.  Water depth was witnessed at 18 inches.  Mr. Laslo and his realtor then went by boat to Pump Station 36.  Upon arrival, it was not pumping or moving water.  What looked like an emergency generator was not hooked up or connected to the water pumping station, and there were no cables or cords found that connected to the pump building.  Hurricane Irma’s power outage meant there was no means by which to flow or remove water, as there was no power source.  Upon leaving the pump station, Mr. Laslo discovered that neighbors had contacted Hillsborough County Public Works to report flooding.  After a few hours, Laslo returned to the pumping station to find that it remained inoperable.

Four days passed before floodwaters began to diminish.  It was assumed that Hillsborough County had visited the pumping station and either restored power or connected the pumping station’s generator.

The lawsuit states the Laslos had to destroy or throw away all their furniture and possessions located on the property. The value of their home was reduced to a fraction of its original value. They also lost rental property income.  They were forced to move into a secondary home that had recently been leased to a tenant.

The Laslos claim that both Southwest Water Management District and its governing board and Hillsborough County, were aware of the inoperable water pumping station because a service system informs the county of any inoperable pump station or system.

John Gray, a supervisor at Hillsborough County Public Works Department’s specialized services unit explained that a transformer, not a generator, is used in emergency operations.  Another supervisor, Don Hyler, indicated that if the transformer is not working, the County attends to the water pump station the next day, typically to install a temporary pumping station operation.  The Laslos contend that with early knowledge of Hurricane Irma, and with a GIS service system in tact to warn of operational problems, the Defendants should have, at minimum, contacted all affected homeowners to inform them flooding was imminent due to weather conditions.

Throughout the month of October 2019, The Laslos, through their appointed counsel, attempted on numerous occasions to obtain Pump Station 36’s maintenance and operations records from both Hillsborough County Services and Public Works, but received commitments for feedback that were never honored.  As late as August 20, 2020 the Laslos filed a pre-suit complaint, which was denied by Southwest Management District.  The District also notified they had closed the investigation. 

An area of contention may be the interpretation of the Florida Tort Claims Act and Section 768.28 F.S. that gives sovereign immunity to the Defendants.  Counsel for the Laslos indicates in the lawsuit that the Defendants, regardless of what they claim, are not immune from lawsuits that pertain to operational decisions and activity, but only from cases involving permitting or planning issues.  The lawsuit further states Pump Station 36 was designed with flaws, specifically by creating a flowage easement that forced unwanted stormwater downstream on adjacent lands, which among others, included the Plaintiff’s property.  The Counsel cites violations of the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which in part denote that private property cannot be deprived without due process of law, and that private property cannot be taken for public use without just compensation.  The lawsuit declares that the Plaintiffs have learned the increased commercial development was permitted and allowed by Hillsborough County for their benefit while creating a storm drainage and floodwater receptor on their private property at their  detriment.”

Eric W. Smith and Judith S. Lambert of Lambert Law Offices, P.L., Brandon, Florida are attorneys to the Plaintiffs.  Hillsborough County Public Works could not be reached for comment.

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