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Cash but no apology for couple in 7-year water ordeal; Satisfaction lacking as county agency pays

There's no apology in the making, but the Erie County Water Authority is giving Jake and Lynn Gruber the next best thing -- cash.

No one is saying how much, but it's enough to end a seven-year dispute that began with a broken water pipe and ended with a $4 million lawsuit accusing the Water Authority of bullying and intimidation.

The Grubers never got what they really wanted -- a simple apology from Water Authority officials -- but they did succeed in winning their David vs. Goliath legal battle every step of the way.

"No amount of money makes it right," said Steven M. Cohen of HoganWillig, the Grubers' lawyers. "All they ever wanted was an apology, and they didn't get it."

The Amherst homeowners will instead get money, a resolution that Cohen says is far from satisfying, given the turmoil the authority brought on the Gruber family.

The authority declined to comment on the settlement amount but indicated that all but $25,000 will be financed by its insurance company, not authority ratepayers. The settlement is believed to be less than $100,000.

"It was the determination of [the authority's] insurance carrier to settle this matter," the Water Authority said in a statement. "Again, all terms of the settlement are confidential, but there is no admission or acceptance of liability by [the authority]."

The Grubers' story dates from February 2005, when a Water Authority crew accidently broke a pipe as it replaced the family's water meter on Meadowview Drive.

Authority workers told the couple that they would have to fix the broken pipe themselves, but that proved difficult given the meter's location -- several hundred feet from the house -- and a neighbor's unwillingness to immediately grant them access for the repairs.

When the unrepaired leak led to a $4,000 unpaid water bill, the authority shut off service to the Grubers' home, leaving the couple and their three young children without water for five days.

Jake Gruber eventually signed a payment plan but did it under protest and later took the authority to Small Claims Court and won.

The authority appealed twice, and the Grubers won again both times. When the Water Authority appealed a third time, the State Supreme Court's Appellate Division ruled unanimously for the Grubers.

When the authority still refused to apologize, the Grubers filed suit in federal court and demanded $4 million in damages.

"I never sued anyone and did not want to go through with a lawsuit," Jake Gruber said at the time. "I demanded that they apologize to the family. And every time, they refused."

From the day the pipe broke more than seven years ago, the authority stood by its policy of requiring customers to deal with repairs between the meter and their house.

What the Grubers quickly learned is that the authority's enforcement of that policy did not include any process for addressing consumer challenges to the policy.

Authority officials later acknowledged the lack of formal hearings over billing disputes and promised to review its policies with an eye toward making "necessary changes."

The authority repeated that pledge in its statement this week.

Cohen thinks the Grubers' suit will go a long way toward bringing about those much-needed reforms.

"I would just hope that the policymakers at the Erie County Water Authority will take this under advisement in terms of how they handle these type of matters in the future," Cohen said.

The authority, which declined to comment on the out-of-court settlement, never formally apologized but came close when Jake Gruber filed his lawsuit two years ago.

"Although we feel Mr. Gruber's most recent claim for compensatory damages is exorbitant and we disagree with the court's initial decision, we remain sympathetic to the inconvenience this matter has caused him and his family," authority commissioners said in a joint statement.

That statement is noteworthy not only for what it said, but for who said it. Among the commissioners was John F. O'Donnell Jr., a well-known political consultant who some believe owes his appointment, at least in part, to the Grubers' lawsuit.

It was O'Donnell who, while being interviewed for the job by county lawmakers, criticized the authority's handling of the case.

"That they literally bullied a family is outrageous," O'Donnell told the Legislature at the time.

In the end, county lawmakers, clearly unhappy with the Water Authority's handling of the Grubers' case, chose O'Donnell over the authority's then-chairman, Frank E. Swiatek.

In rejecting Swiatek, the Legislature reversed a long-standing tradition of accepting the recommendations of party leaders for Water Authority positions. Swiatek was recommended by County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan.

O'Donnell, when contacted this week, said he could not comment on the details of the settlement but indicated he was pleased that the authority has taken steps to ensure that nothing similar happens again.

"The Water Authority is really committed to providing the best customer service possible," he said.

O'Donnell, who said he was speaking for all the commissioners, also came close to the apology the Grubers always wanted.

"I'm very sorry," he said, "that this happened to Mr. Gruber and his family."

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com