Judge to decide whether to dismiss Manhattan city government from negligence suit

Savannah Rattanavong, The Manhattan Mercury, Kan.
·2 min read

Mar. 12—A Riley County judge on Thursday tabled a decision on whether to dismiss the Manhattan city government as a defendant in a negligence lawsuit.

The involved parties met via Zoom to hear the city's motion to dismiss it from a negligence case. Two Manhattan residents, Walter Dodds and Dolly Gudder, allege Riley County clerk Rich Vargo, his wife, Darnell, and their business, Triple M-B Properties, allowed construction at a property adjacent to their own that ultimately led to two partial hill collapses and two water main breaks.

Dodds and Gudder said in the suit that those incidents led to damage on their own property, impairing access to their home and preventing them from being able to sell their house. The Vargos have denied the work was responsible for the overall damage to the couple's property.

Dodds and Gudder also accuse the city government of negligence, alleging the city did not respond quickly enough to repair the water main breaks and that when workers did arrive, they did not know how to turn the water off efficiently.

Michelle Stewart, a Kansas City lawyer hired by the city to defend it during this case, said the city was not responsible for the excavation because it was done by a private entity and it did not cause the water main break by either action or inaction. Stewart also argued the negligence claim fails because the city did not perform a negligent act and the existence of the water main itself is not a nuisance.

Chris Biggs, representing the home owners, argued the city did have a responsibility because the water main is located on city property, it allowed the Vargos to do the construction work and approved their plans, and it did not require a particular retaining wall be built to support the hill.

"While the failure to enforce a particular ordinance may not be negligence in one isolated circumstance ... when you combine all the things that have occurred here, it is much more complicated than the cases (the city) cited," Biggs said.

In addition, Biggs said the hill is still unstable and the water main could break again, which could lead to further damage to his clients' property. He alleged the city is not doing enough to properly ensure the water main is fixed and enforce ordinances or regulations.

Dodds and Gudder asked for damages of more than $75,000 from the defendants, as well as requested a jury trial in the case.

Judge Kendra Lewison said she would need time to review related case law before coming to a decision on the motion. Lewison said she would issue a decision on or by the next hearing at 3 p.m. April 9.