Water Damage in Self-Storage Facility

BHS experts were engaged by a sprinkler contractor to investigate water damage consequences and to develop alternative liability theories.

SITUATION

What happened and why, in a newly-opened, three story self-storage facility on the west coast? That was the question posed to BHS’ experts when engaged by the sprinkler contractor to investigate water damage consequences and to develop alternative liability theories. A flood occurred during the warranty replacement of the umbilical control cord for the elevator car by the original installation subcontractor. During replacement, the cord looped under and dislodged the sprinkler head installed at the bottom of the hydraulic elevator pit when the elevator ascended. With the sprinkler system under pressure, this caused the fire alarm to annunciate and water flowed into the elevator pit.

There was a sump pump, rated at 15 gpm, recessed in a small sump, in the corner of the elevator pit. The 1 ¼” sump pump discharge was piped to spill into a 2” threaded opening on a 55 gallon drum on the second floor of the facility. The discharge was not a direct, hard piped connection into a water tight barrel so that the 56th gallon of water could only overflow onto the floor – which it did and continued to do. Water overfilled the barrel at the rate of 15 gpm. A quick calculation reveals that the 55 gallon drum would fill in approximately 4 minutes once the sump pump engages.

With the alarm sounding, and in the absence of an emergency response plan, the part-time watchman wasted more than the time available before the overflow started, trying to find out how to shut off the main valve, only to find it chained and locked. More time was lost to find the key. The water continued to overflow. Untrained, it never occurred to the watchman to shut off the sump pump’s circuit breaker and use the elevator pit as a reservoir to receive the water. This would have prevented water damage from occurring when water spilled out of the barrel and onto the second floor flooding the storage units and contents on the first floor below.

FINDINGS

It is apparent that the water event was caused by the subcontractor’s warranty repair efforts: this is clearly a workmanship issue. What is not so evident is responsibility for the extent of claimed financial damage to first floor units’ contents, mold amplification on contents purported to affect the building’s reputation and potential health effects, overall rentability and the associated financial consequences to the owner having failed to meet certain mortgage pro-forma goals to reduce the interest rate. This incident required BHS to review and analyze the plans, specifications, as-built drawings, submittal and related contract documents as well as a field investigation and elevator mechanic interviews.

The consequences in terms of total gallons of a water event or elevator hydraulic oil discharge were calculable. The original design failed to provide for an alarm should the sump pump start to discharge with no provision for overflow beyond 55 gallons to be carried away from the building itself. The hydraulic oil reservoir for the elevator system contained 140 gallons. There was no alarm provision for the drum overflow. Additionally, the owner failed to create a protocol or procedure which would enable the employee on duty to locate and access the key which controlled valve operation or the circuit breaker which could have disabled the pump.

LESSONS LEARNED

The seemingly apparent consequences of a workmanship error by a contractor may not always be as easily attributable to a single convenient act as it seems. In this instance, the owner or building operator failed to consider an emergency preparedness response plan to protect the building, its contents and operation. Critical thinking by BHS and a detailed situation analysis were required to mitigate risks associated with the seemingly obvious consequences of deficient design or associated ramifications of the contractor’s workmanship issue (umbilical cord) or a construction defect. Ultimately, BHS was able to demonstrate that the sprinkler contractor, our client, was responsible for direct, but not consequential, damages.

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