Utility Company Damaged My Driveway
I walked out of my house today and imagine my surprise to find a couple of workers from the water company breaking up parts of my driveway to access a line. No notice; nothing! Just a crack in my driveway near the sidewalk. I asked if they were going to replace the plants that they also removed. They tried to ignore me, but eventually gave me the number of their supervisor to call. Is this legal? —Mad Mom from Westlake Village
Dear Mad Mom: I’m sorry to report that if your utility company has an easement in that area of your property — and most do — then it is perfectly legal for the workers to dig into your land to access the water line. Without getting into too much legalese, an “easement” basically gives the holder (such as electric, water, cable companies) a legal right to enter your private property.
Technically, if you improve the property over a known easement, then you are assuming the risk that your improvement may be damaged when your easement holder has to access ground pipes or cable. One exception to this rule is if your easement explicitly states that the holder of the easement will make all repairs to property caused by their egress or access.
All that said, an easement just gives them the right to access (or traverse) that area. It doesn’t give them license to damage your property. An easement licensee (like a utility company) typically will repair damage that they cause to your property, especially if you make a stink. Best to start with the supervisor to see if he or she will agree to make the repairs necessary to put the property back in its original condition.
Remember to get any repair agreement or assurances in writing! No matter what they say, insist they provide you with a signed, written document of their agreement to make the repairs and include a list of the repairs that you can see. This way you create a binding contract. Oftentimes, they’ll give you a form document and ask you to sign it without itemizing that they’ll repair any damage. Feel free to write the agreement you want on that document and ask the worker or supervisor to initial it.
If you can‘t work it out with the utility company or its representatives, or if they breach a written agreement to repair the damage, then you should consult a Real Estate Lawyer for assistance. (Although there are many, Larry Clarke is one lead for a seasoned real estate attorney.) You can also file a complaint with the State Agency that regulates Public Utility Companies.
Also, consult a lawyer immediately if you suspect that the utility company does not have a legal easement over your property or if such an easement was never mentioned in the deed to your property. This could be a red flag that affects your title, for which you might have recourse against your title insurance company.
As for advance notice, absent an emergency, utility workers typically do (and should) give you some notice, which can be as simple as knocking on your door before digging anything up.
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