Homeowners across Cook County were sure glad they had insurance after pounding rains flooded areas near Illinois rivers and streams in April 2013. Thousands of homeowners put in claims to offset the cost of repairing the damage to their basements and other parts of their properties. Insurance companies made some big payouts.

Now one insurance company wants the public to pay it back. 

On April 17, a year to the day the rains started falling in northern Illinois, Farmers Insurance Company filed suit in the chancery Division of Cook County Circuit Court against the county, its municipalities and other agencies, seeking reimbursement for claims it was forced to pay out in the flood’s aftermath. 

The company claims the county, municipalities and agencies such as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) were negligent in not taking reasonable steps to prevent the flooding.

In addition, the lawsuit claims the municipalities violated both the Illinois constitution and the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against illegal seizure of property by using properties as “retention basins” for storm water, which “restricted [homeowners’] dominion and control over their real properties, including their residence and homes and personal property.”

Among those municipalities named as defendants in the lawsuit are Forest Park and River Forest, as well as North Riverside, Brookfield and Riverside. Many residents near the Des Plaines River saw their homes damaged during last year’s floods. Hundreds were evacuated.

Forest Park Village Administrator Tim Gillian said the suit was so new he didn’t have a chance to read it. 

“In my opinion, the lawsuit is overreaching and frivolous,” said North Riverside Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. “It seeks to indemnify Farmers for the monies paid for last year’s flood from municipal governments. In my opinion, it does not state a cause of action where relief can be sought.”

The suit asks the court to order the municipalities and other governmental agencies not only to reimburse the insurance company for claims it was forced to pay, but to reimburse homeowners for uninsured losses related to the flooding.

Famers Insurance asks the court to award monetary damages “in excess of the jurisdictional minimum” and other relief the court might deem appropriate.

The claims against all of the municipalities are identical.

Farmers Insurance argues that the MWRD and municipalities should have taken greater steps to prepare for flooding, because published documents like the MWRD’s watershed plans the MWRD’s 2008 acknowledgement that climate change was a factor in recent weather events.

“The [MWRD] knew or should have known that climate change in Cook County has resulted in greater rainfall volume, greater rainfall intensity and greater rainfall duration that pre-1970 rainfall history evidenced, resulting in greater storm water runoff from a rainfall with Cook County and its watersheds,” the suit states.

Knowing that the April 17-18, 2013 storm was approaching, the lawsuit contends, the MWRD and municipalities “failed to provide safe, adequate mitigation storage for storm water to prevent invasions such as the use of quick, water-inflatable property protection systems, sandbags or other quick solutions to increase mitigation storage.

Richard Pellegrino, executive director of the West Central Municipal Conference, scoffed at the lawsuit’s claim that municipalities should have been able to predict the impact of the April 2013 storm.

“I’m not sure it’s appropriate for a local government to be in the catastrophic loss prediction business,” said Pellegrino. “Is the National Weather Service going to be sued if they didn’t predict a tornado with a certain degree of reliability?”

What Farmers Insurance is attempting to do, said Pellegrino, is shift the burden of the cost of doing its private business to the public.

“At what point does the private sector want to shift its responsibility to the public sector?” Pellegrino asked.

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