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October 31, 2012

Warren settles tree damage lawsuit for $1.42 million

By Brad D. Bates
C & G Staff Writer

WARREN — After a 12-year legal odyssey, the city of Warren has agreed to pay a $1,420,000 settlement to a group of homeowners who claimed their properties were damaged by trees once planted along residential streets.

Attorneys representing the city and plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed in Macomb County Circuit Court said the settlement would avoid further legal wrangling in a case that began in 2000 with an initial group of about 50 residents.

The homeowners claimed they suffered flooding, broken sidewalks and plumbing or sewer problems as a result of trees planted on city property by builders during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

According to attorney Gerard Mantese, who represented the residents, the case twice went before Michigan’s Court of Appeals and Supreme Court after rulings by former Macomb County Circuit Court Judge James Biernat, now Warren’s City Attorney.

Mantese said Biernat initially ruled against efforts to move the case forward as a class action, a decision that was upheld all the way to the state Supreme Court.

But he said Biernat later reviewed the case and overturned his ruling.

That decision, eventually upheld by the higher courts, allowed the case to proceed as a class action involving several hundred affected homeowners in 2007.

“We have arrived at a settlement for $1,420,000, but this is on top of the other remedies we have obtained for the class,” Mantese said. “As a result of the lawsuit, the city changed its policies and ordinances to pay for tree removal and sidewalk repairs.

“After 12 years, we were able to obtain compensation for these citizens,” Mantese said.

Attorneys said the settlement agreement was reached and approved by all parties. According to court records, motions to approve the settlement were filed in September with a final settlement date of Oct. 29 set before Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Matthew Switalski.

Resident Patricia DeMeyer, who bought her home on Lowe Drive near 14 Mile and Schoenherr in 1968, said she planned to be in court for the final hearing.

“I’m glad there’s finally a settlement. It’s been going on way too long,” DeMeyer said. “I think the city of Warren finally realized that you can take on city hall, and we can win. We had extensive damage, to the amount of $10,000. We weren’t reimbursed one single penny for it.”

Attorney John Gillooly, representing the city in the case, had argued that the city did nothing wrong.

However, he called the settlement a “great deal” that would bring closure after 12 years of litigation and avoid a more costly payout.

“The city is contributing just over $100,000 and insurance carriers for the city are paying the rest,” Gillooly said. “We need to bring closure to this case.  It’s time to put this thing to bed.”

Warren Mayor Jim Fouts declined to comment on the case Oct. 25 and said he was unaware of the pending final deal.

Mantese said it remained to be determined how much compensation residents entitled to a piece of the settlement would receive.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Brad D. Bates at bbates@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1029.