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Schenectady landslide victim files lawsuit against homeowners, city, county

Schenectady landslide victim files lawsuit against homeowners, city, county

Man claims defendants failed to ensure hill stability
Schenectady landslide victim files lawsuit against homeowners, city, county
Iquann Cornish talks about being trapped in mud during an interview last year.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

SCHENECTADY — The man buried in mud up to his neck in a landslide last year has filed a lawsuit against the city and county, claiming officials didn’t do enough to ensure the integrity of the hillside before it collapsed.

Iquann Cornish's claim also names Joseph and Ann Gotwals, owners of the building at 223 Nott Terrace where he was trapped for an hour while visiting his uncle on Jan. 28, 2018.

City officials ultimately determined the landslide was caused by a broken water service line serving 11 Barney St. on the hillside above.

Water gathered in the basement, which had a dirt floor. Officials believe the water was able to seep through the floor and into the hillside, causing it to fail.

Cornish included the owners of that property, Bronx residents Vidyawattie Abraja and Yhmenie Devi Abraja, in the complaint, as well as Josh Gonzalez, former owner of 15 Barney St. 

He claims the defendants “failed to ensure that they maintained, controlled, designed, possessed, inspected, repaired, assessed and/or took proactive measures to ensure the integrity of the hillside” before the event. 

Cornish, now 21, suffered broken ribs, bruises and abrasions following the incident, as well as nerve damage to his left leg, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, which was filed in state Supreme Court on April 23, doesn’t state how much Cornish is seeking in damages. 

Cornish had filed a notice of claim last April against the city and county, a formal measure designed to preserve his right to file a lawsuit. The filing last week comes at the end of that statutory window. 

LOCALITIES DENY RESPONSIBILILTY 

The home had been considered a vacant property that the owners had walked away from, City Commissioner of General Services Paul LaFond said last April.

Water service had not been shut off before the service line broke. City workers terminated service days just days before the slide after tracing a patch of ice to the structure.

“As soon as workers noticed it, they went and turned the water off,” City Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico said last May. 

While the city maintains water mains, property owners are responsible for maintaining the water service lines leading to each property, he said.

Falotico said while he’s sympathetic to Cornish, the city is not responsible for what happened.

“The owner of 11 Barney St. was responsible for the maintenance of their building and the water service line, and it was their leaking water service line which allowed excessive water to build on the hillside and led to the collapse,” Falotico said in response to the lawsuit.

Efforts to contact the Abrajas were unsuccessful on Tuesday.

The city declared a state of emergency and demolished several buildings on Barney Street and a garage on Daggett Terrace after the structures were deemed unstable. The hill was then stabilized by a construction firm.

Falotico previously said the city didn’t have any liability because it did nothing to add to the problem that caused the slide. He also doesn't believe the city was negligent in failing to notify residents at the bottom of the hill of the danger because water and sewer maintenance crews didn’t have any reason to believe the slope would fail.

County Attorney Chris Gardner previously said he doesn’t believe the county could be liable for the landslide and the damage. He said last April he believes the county is protected through qualified immunity, meaning there are not enough resources to address each unstable hill.

“I don’t see us having anything to do whatsoever with this incident,” Gardner said on Friday.

But Kristie Hanson, Cornish’s attorney, said last year one of the main reasons the county should have acted was because of their involvement in the Schenectady County Multi-Jurisdictional Hazard Mitigation Plan.

The 2007 report contained a map that showed the ridge where Barney Street is located as being susceptible to landslides. 

It's the same ridge along Broadway where a fatal 1996 slide and a 2004 slide occurred.

The lawsuit marks the latest in a series of legal actions stemming from the incident, joining numerous claims filed in the aftermath, most of them by property owners contending the city was negligent in not taking timely action to isolate the water line breakage.

The city has denied all claims to date, Falotico said on Tuesday.

Joseph Gotwals said he hadn’t heard of the latest lawsuit until contacted by a reporter on Monday, and didn’t appear to be concerned with Cornish’s complaint naming him as a defendant.

All of his claims had been denied by the city, he said. 

“I doubt this will be able to succeed,” he said. “I haven’t been able to get anywhere with the city — I’ve essentially given up on it.

"I’ve been advised nothing I can do will bring a result against the city.”

Efforts to contact Gonzalez, who also filed claims against the city, were unsuccessful.

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