Georgia Supreme Court rules for city in 20-year-old Barngrover case

mowen@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 4, 2013 

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday in the city of Columbus’ favor in a 20-year legal battle with a local physician over a house and other property at 3301 Cathryn Drive.

Two decades of legal wrangling came to a close Monday when the court ruled that the city could proceed with demolition of the decrepit structures on the property, removal of soil contaminated by a leaking sewer line and construction of a new home on the property.

“Of course we’re pleased with the ruling. We were very hopeful that the order of Judge McBride would be affirmed,” City Attorney Clifton Fay said. “Now that it is, the city is going to be taking steps to carry out the special master’s recommendations. The first step will be demolition and clean-up of all structures on the property.”

Messages left for Barngrover and his attorney, James Patrick, were unanswered Monday.

Fay said Barngrover’s attorneys can still file a request for reconsideration with the state Supreme Court, but he doubted such a filing would succeed. There are no avenues of appeal for this case beyond the state’s high court.

“The neighbors deserve relief,” Fay said. “They have been waiting a long time to get some relief on this piece of property.”

One neighbor, Greg Camp, has lived next to the Barngrover house since 1996. Told of the court’s ruling, he responded with several “hallelujahs.”

“From a neighbor’s point of view, I am truly relieved that it’s over,” he said. “My understanding is that the jury asked if this would be resolved within six months. Judge (Robert) Johnston said that would be reasonable. That was coming up on 14 years ago.

“So, they only missed the mark by 13-and-a-half years, and we’re glad it’s over.”

Barngrover bought the house in 1991 and made some improvements. Along the way, he discovered that a sewer pipe and rain drain were running under his house, causing toxic leaks and sinkholes. He demanded that the city remedy the situation, but was refused.

In Johnston’s court, Barngrover successfully sued the city, which unsuccessfully appealed, in a process that dragged on until 2001. The city was ordered to pay $237,000 in damages and to restore the property to its 1991 condition.

In determining how best to do that, the city discovered a way to remedy the sewer/rain drain problem for less than $1 million instead of $11.5 million. Barngrover argued that the city’s plan would not remove the pipes from his property, as the court had ordered. The city countered that it would remove them from under all structures, but they would run close to the property line, ostensibly out of harm’s way.

Another court battle ensued, and Judge Gil McBride, who had taken the case after Johnston’s retirement, filed his final order in the case July 1, 2011, siding with the city. In addition to McBride’s ruling, a Special Master appointed by the court agreed that the city’s plan was acceptable.

Arguing before the state Supreme Court last year, Patrick, contended that Johnston’s original ruling was clear that the sewer lines had to be removed from the property, not moved to the side of it.

But in the ruling handed down Monday, Justice Robert Benham, writing for the unanimous court, stated:

“The jury’s verdict required the (c)ity to abate the drainage system which ran under the Barngrovers’ home, away from the house; the jury’s verdict did not require that the (c)ity remove the drainage system from the Barngrover property.”

Patrick also argued that the special master was not qualified to make construction decisions, but the court also shot that argument down.

“(Barngrover) voiced no objection to the special master’s qualifications in the 51 months between the special master’s appointment and the special master’s report and recommendation, finding fault with the special master only after the special master issued his recommendation,” Benham wrote.

According to the city attorney, Columbus has spent about a half-million dollars on lawyers and engineers in this case so far.

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