As Jerry Tashjian got ready for work on an early spring day two years ago, he suddenly felt his whole house shaking so badly that it sent him running out the front door.
He had no doubt where all the noise and vibration was coming from: the sprawling construction site just 75 feet from his home in Needham. Tashjian said he complained to a foreman, who agreed to turn off the very large, multi-ton piece of machinery used to compact the ground being readied for construction of a school.
The neighborhood instantly became still and quiet.
But after that day, Tashjian began noticing cracks in his house — in the walls, ceilings, even the bathroom tiles. Dozens of them, some 3-feet long, some as thick as a dime. An inspection later put the cost of repairs at about $25,000.
And Tashjian wasn’t the only one. Across the street, Jo-Ann and Richard Rosen, in Florida at the time of the pounding, came home to cracks in every room of their house.
Another neighbor, Sue Cotton, has cracks in her house, too. When she felt the shaking, she went on Facebook and asked, "“How worried should I be that when they move around excavators and such my whole house shakes?”
An inspection of the Rosens’ house later pegged repair costs at about $13,500; the Cotton’s house, about $3,600. In total, the estimated cost of plastering, caulking, and painting over the cracks in a total of five houses topped $51,000, according to an insurance adjuster later hired by the town.
The neighbors believe their homes were damaged by the ongoing construction, not just the over-the-top shaking that sent Tashjian fleeing into the street that day.
Yet, almost two years later, no one has received any compensation. It has left the neighbors feeling frustrated and defeated, all the more so because the owner of the property is their own town, Needham, which built the now-opened, $60 million Sunita L. Williams Elementary School at the end of their street.
Jo-Ann Rosen, 69, a retired operating room nurse, has taken the lead on behalf of the Sunset Road neighbors. She enlisted my help and shared with me a voluminous record of e-mails and letters that shows how difficult it can be to win an insurance claim even when the responsible party seems obvious.
“We think we should get compensation for the damage to our homes," Rosen said. “I don’t think there’s any question the construction next door is to blame. When the construction began, the cracks appeared.”
The Rosens have lived in their house for almost 40 years. Jo-Ann Rosen pointed out to me dozens of cracks etched into the crown molding, the bay window, the built-in bookcases, the walls and ceilings. She showed me where the baseboard has pulled away from the walls.
What caused it? Here’s the opinion of the town counsel, in a letter to contractors, a couple months after the shaking incident: “It is obvious from the timing of the construction work, the nature of that work, and the claimed damages to the neighbors’ properties, the construction activity [at the school] is related to the damages.”
At about the same time, one contractor acknowledged the complaints this way: “We do have seismometers set up around the site now. Not that that helps prevent cracks but just to monitor vibration. Big roller has not been in use since we were notified of potential problem.”
One place to start when trying to get compensation for damage is with your own homeowners insurer, even if you believe another insurer should ultimately be held responsible. Having your own insurer go after another insurer could give you an advocate who knows the sometimes arcane world of insurance. But Amica, Rosen’s insurer, said her policy did not cover damage caused by “earth movement.”
Amica defined earth movement as earthquakes, landslides, mudslides, sinkholes, or instances of the earth “sinking, rising, or shifting.” Whether the earth movement was caused by "an act of nature or [was] otherwise caused” didn’t matter, Amica said.
Still, I wish Amica had paused long enough before issuing its denial to help Rosen formulate a claim against one of the other insurers.
Nor did the town spring immediately into action to help Rosen in her dealings with Arbella, the insurer for one of the subcontractors, Guigli & Sons. Town officials in the beginning told her to deal directly with Arbella.
The big problem Rosen — and the other homeowners — faced was showing cause and effect, that the vibration caused the cracks. "There has been no credible evidence presented” that construction activities "contributed to any of the property damage” claimed by homeowners, Guigli’s insurer wrote.
What was needed was a dated video or photographs of the houses, inside and out, before the school project began to compare with their later condition.
State law already mandates such videos when there is blasting on a construction site, but not for soil compacting of this sort. Nor is it clear anyone anticipated the kind of shaking that went on.
Still, it was plainly understood from the outset that this would be a major construction job, including demolition of existing buildings, with lots of heavy equipment on site for about two years.
“It’s upsetting to us the town didn’t take the initiative" to recommend such videos, Rosen said.
The town has general liability insurance. But, in a statement to me, it said “the town is not legally responsible for any damage caused" by its contractors, though it is “sympathetic” to the plight of the neighbors and even dipped into town funds for the $4,400 cost for professional inspection of their houses, after insurers declined to do so.
I described the Sunset Road state of affairs to an experienced lawyer who specializes in insurance case. “It’s an insurance quagmire," he said. "Someone should be on the hook, and not the neighbors.”
I agree. The town needs to step up and take care of these wronged residents.
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