keep your chemicals to yourself please
April 16, 2011 9:05 AM   Subscribe

What can I do if my neighbor's pool leaks into my yard? (USA, VA)

My neighbors (renters) just installed an above-ground pool, and it immediately sprung a leak and hundreds of gallons of water spilled and seeped into my yard. This is not really a problem, as they hadn't put any chemicals in the water yet, and we've gotten so much rain this spring that another deluge didn't do any harm.

So they've fixed the leak and are moving forward with the project. If it springs another leak after all the chlorine has been added, I won't shrug it off. I have a lot of veggies growing back there and I've put considerable effort into raised beds and organic compost/soil, we have pets, and I like pulling dandelion greens out of the lawn to eat for dinner. Even if I didn't have gardens or pets, it's my yard and I really really really don't want chemicals in it.

So who is at fault (resident renter, property owner?) and what recourse would I have once there is a spill? Should I write the owner a letter now saying "water is ok but no chemicals in my yard please"? Do I make sure they have homeowners' insurance or request that the renter carry renter's insurance? Is damage to a neighbor's yard even included in those kinds of insurance policies? I assume there are companies that could clean my yard/soil for a fee, but how would someone go about doing that? Is it even feasible at all? The owner moved into an apt. and rented out her house last summer for financial reasons. I'm on friendly terms with both owner and renter fwiw.
posted by headnsouth to Law & Government (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Have I got a legal concept for you: joint and several liability.

Here's the thing: if your neighbors pool leaks into your yard and causes property damage, you do have legal recourse, and you don't need to care about who you're supposed to go after. One and/or both of them is liable, and you can probably go after one of them for the whole thing and let the two of them sort out who's ultimately on the hook. You, quite frankly, don't care. You just want your money.

This is a very common tactic in litigation where more than one party is potentially at fault: sue everyone and let the defendants work it out themselves.

IANYL, but I do insurance defense for a living, so I can talk you through how these things tend to work themselves out.

There are two ways you could go about this. The first is to just get a lawyer and have him sue. The other parties' insurance carriers would be notified, and there might be some wrangling about who's ultimately going to pay, but you'd probably wind up getting paid pretty quickly, as there doesn't seem to be much question that someone is liable to you.

The other would be to contact your insurance company and file a claim, though there might be coverage issues there depending on how your policy is written. First, water is kind of a tricky peril, as flood is generally excluded and ground water frequently is as well. Second, most people tend to have inadequate coverage for their landscaping, particularly things like gardens.* But you'd probably get some kind of payment, and your insurance company would then subrogate against the tortfeasors, i.e. your neighbor and his landlord, to try and get something back. Depending on how that goes, you might even be able to get your deductible back.

In terms of maximizing your recovery, it's hard to say which would be better. The former route will probably wind up with you paying a third of anything you recover to your lawyer. The latter may run into the aforementioned coverage issues. But the insurance route does have the advantage of getting you paid pretty quickly, whereas the direct lawsuit could easily take a year or two.

*Actually, the pool thing aside, it's probably worth a call to your agent to make sure you're adequately valued here. It might cost you a few extra bucks in premium, but if something does take out your garden, whether it be a hailstorm or a marauding dirt bike, you want to be sure you're covered.
posted by valkyryn at 9:18 AM on April 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

Small Claims court might be your recourse of choice, at least if your damages are a low dollar amount.

The renter would be at fault. You might want to find out if the renter has renter's insurance, which would probably include some sort of blanket liability coverage. You might have to full blown sue the neighbor to get insurance involved, if it comes to that.

I guess if the homeowner still has homeowner's insurance on the house, then the owner's insurance might also cover it under liability.
posted by colinshark at 9:21 AM on April 16, 2011

Mention to both the owner and renters that if another leak happens, you won't be able to shrug it off. That alone may be the incentive they need to look into insurance or, at the very least, to ensure that the pool is in good working order. If they think that one leak wasn't a big deal, they might have kind of a laissez-faire approach to staying on top of preventing another one.
posted by corey flood at 9:32 AM on April 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

When we moved in the guy at the top of the hill was draining his in-ground pool down the hill. It made everything smell like pool water, but otherwise I didn't see any damage to plants or grass. We solved it by having my neighbor (who played offensive line for Steve Spurrier in college) knock on his door and politely ask him to not do that anymore.

I suspect if you get to a point where you sue him you'll be disappointed in the financial liability that may result on his part. If you grass is still growing and the veggies are still green I don't think you are going to be able to win damages because his leak offended your organic lifestyle. At best you might get the cost of the seeds back. If you claim loss of use of the yard due to the chlorine his insurance company is going to counter with millions of kids swimming in chlorinated pools every day. IANAL but I have been a homeowner for 20 years and seem how neighbor disputes play out, and how home owners insurance claims play out.

One thing you might do is check if above ground pools are even allowed in your neighborhood. They aren't in mine. If the covenants don't allow it, there is your out. Complain and get the pool removed.
posted by COD at 9:48 AM on April 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I know that the tenant does not have renter's insurance because the leak flooded her basement and I asked her. (I have a crawlspace, so no basement to flood). I think I will call the owner & let her know my concerns, and get her current mailing address too. I don't want to sue or screw anyone. I will also call my insurance agent to discuss my coverage, although even if I am covered, the last thing I want to do is make a claim on my own insurance because of something my neighbor does.

Any thoughts on how to actually rid my yard of the chemicals, or who could do that?
posted by headnsouth at 10:06 AM on April 16, 2011

You might think about digging some kind of ditch or berm to divert the water from your garden. Depending on your property, it could be a feature, and lots of good exercise - have your neighbors help too.
posted by anadem at 10:34 AM on April 16, 2011

>I don't want to sue or screw anyone.

You want to keep that thought to yourself. The biggest deterrent is that you might. Think Reagan and the Soviets. They never were really sure what he was going to do.
posted by yclipse at 10:46 AM on April 16, 2011

I don't want to sue or screw anyone.

Understandable, but the thing is, your question is asking for legal options. Think about it this way: if someone damages your property, you're the one getting screwed, and if you get compensation to the tune of your actual damages, you aren't "screwing" your neighbor as much as making them take responsibility for their own negligence. This may or may not involve a lawsuit--if liability and damages are clear, the other party may well settle as soon as a claim is made--but if you let your insurance company take care of it, you need not be all that involved.

As far as getting the pool chemicals out of your hard, a hard rain will probably do that. You might speed the process along by watering rigorously for a few days, but really,the chlorine in there will only be around for a few days at most. It goes away pretty quickly. We are not talking about long-term contamination here.
posted by valkyryn at 10:52 AM on April 16, 2011

The best way to clean up pool chemicals is just a little time and sunlight. Sun is the bane of pool chemicals, the UV rays convert the chlorine into a form that likes to evaporate. It isn't likely to harm your plants much, last summer I watered my melons and cucumbers quite a few times with water from backwashing my pool and had a bumper crop.
posted by TungstenChef at 10:58 AM on April 16, 2011

If you end up having to sue, photos of your yard and garden will help you substantiate your claim.
posted by theora55 at 10:58 AM on April 16, 2011

Oh, and heavily chlorinated water may kill lots of plants, and leave a residue of chlorine. Call the Cooperative Extension office in your state; they'll have information.
posted by theora55 at 11:05 AM on April 16, 2011

Response by poster: Oh good idea, I hadn't thought of the Cooperative Extension office. I will call them to find out.

I do appreciate the comments attempting to minimize my concerns about the chemicals, but I have gone to some trouble to establish an organic yard and i do not want chlorine pouring into it. Even if chlorine evaporates in a matter of days, it will have killed my worms and all of the microorganisms in my soil that make it a good, safe place for edible plants to grow and be safe to eat. That's the point of using chlorine in pools. It's not about whether a particular tomato plant still produces fruit, or whether someone else doesn't mind having it in their yard, it's whether my yard/soil/garden/lawn are damaged as a result, and they would be. Not to mention I don't want my family/pets to be inhaling evaporating chlorine for several days.

You guys are giving me good ideas, thanks.
posted by headnsouth at 11:18 AM on April 16, 2011

Sounds like you might wind up with a solid case for trespass. ianal.
posted by thejoshu at 11:29 AM on April 16, 2011

COD and anadem have good answers. As someone in a lawsuit now, let me just say: never hold back from taking action to protect yourself from harm in reliance upon legal recourse after the damage occurs.

First, because the harm will be done. The earthworms will be dead.

Second, because there are costs to you in the process even if you win. Listen to valkryn, it could take years to get money back, or cost you a deductible -- and that's in the better situations. I doubt you'll get back the full amount you feel due, for reasons like what COD said. It's also possible that you won't find a lawyer who will take the case on contingency and you will decide you don't have the $8,000 - $10,000 to spend on legal fees battling the insurance companies. Please air your reasons if legal costs or the risk of not getting a good settlement don't concern you, because I can tell you why all those reasons didn't protect me.

My advice: split the cost with them to dig a diversion channel as anadem suggested. If they say one is unnecessary, ask them to put up a bond in case of damages. They'll be irritable about all of this, so it will damage your relationship somewhat, but nothing like a lawsuit would.
posted by slidell at 11:51 AM on April 16, 2011

What you really need is a way to prevent that pool water from getting into your yard, should it ever leak again. Which it very possibly will. Armed with the knowledge that you would have good legal recourse if this happened, you need to convince your neighbor (owner or tenant) to install some kind of drainage system (berms? grading? drywell?) sufficient to keep a pool's worth of water OFF of your property (above and below ground) when the next leak happens.

Legally and ethically, and as a matter of good neighborliness, anyone who keeps a huge vat of chemically treated water on their property is obligated to KEEP it on their property. You don't want dead tomatoes and a good lawsuit--you want so many healthy organic veggies you have to share the excess with your neighbor.

If you enjoy English history and flowery old legal language, read up on the venerable 1868 case of Rylands v. Fletcher. It's a thing of great beauty, and actually quite relevant to your situation.
posted by Corvid at 12:00 PM on April 16, 2011

Our neighbor's pool leaked into our yard once when their pool liner ripped*. (It was an old liner.) We also tended to get a lot of runoff from her yard in big rainstorms.

So my husband dug a small trench long the property line, with the trench itself aimed (canted? tilted?) toward the street. Now we no longer get as much runoff from her yard, and should her pool spring another catastrophic leak, the water will pretty much stay on her side of the property line.

Is there a way you could do something in your yard like this to mitigate potential future damage? A trench or berm would give you some peace of mind.

*In our case, we didn't have any crops or gardens to lose. The water was gone within a day, and our grass was none the worse for wear. Our dogs didn't seem to be affected one way or the other. There was no smell that I remember, since everything drained relatively quickly. My neighbor's grass was a little burned for a week or so, but it came back fine. Obviously, YMMV, but I hope my experience makes you feel a little better.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 4:03 PM on April 16, 2011

I'm not sure how this applies in this case, but many municipalities have ordinances in place that require stormwater to be dealt with on site (eg. you can't direct your downspout into the neightbors yard). It may apply to draining of pools as well.
posted by buttercup at 5:09 PM on April 16, 2011

Pool water does not strike me as a "dangerous material" which might implicate strict liability. We're talking dynamite, acids, biological hazards, etc.
posted by valkyryn at 8:01 AM on April 17, 2011

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