By Gregory Pratt and Joe Mahr   contact the reporters

Chicago Tribune

Lawsuit alleges Tinley Park misled public over overcharging water meters


A lawsuit has been filed alleging that Tinley Park officials for years misled residents while overcharging them for water — the latest twist in the controversy surrounding the south suburb’s use of electronic water meters.

The lawsuit against the village seeks class-action status — which, if approved by the court, could cover every Tinley Park water user since 2005, who the lawsuit alleges were forced to endure conduct by the village that was “unfair, immoral, unjust, oppressive and unscrupulous.”

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The filing this week in Cook County Circuit Court comes two months after a Tribune investigation chronicled widespread problems with Tinley Park’s so-called smart water meters. The Tribune found that the suburb knew for years that its meters were prone to overbill residents yet gave the public inaccurate assurances that the meters worked fine. Along the way, Tinley Park officials repeatedly under-refunded residents whose meters were overcharging.

The village’s public works director resigned in July amid questions over his handling of the issue, and Tinley Park’s leaders have said it’s a priority to figure out what went wrong, fix it and properly refund residents.

The village hired a consulting firm this month and expects the company will provide some of those answers by mid-September.

The lawsuit, filed by resident Omar Jaber, alleges that Tinley Park violated the state’s consumer fraud and deceptive business practices act, breached an implied contract with residents by using the meters and unjustly enriched itself.

“Although (Tinley Park) was aware of all the problems and the unreliability of the meters, they chose to buy enough meters to have one installed in every home,” the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit also singles out “misleading” statements that Tinley Park made to residents in an online FAQ.  

Tinley Park, one of Chicago’s largest suburbs uses a type of water meter that it knows has regularly overcharged residents — sometimes by hundreds of dollars a bill — while failing to give the public accurate information about the scope of the problem, a Tribune analysis found. June 3, 2015. (Chicago Tribune)

Residents have a “right to know” about inaccuracies with the village’s smart meters, but Tinley Park failed to inform them “and in fact concealed these facts” from them, according to the lawsuit.

The village bought a smart meter for every residence “believing it could substantially profit through ‘smart meters,'” the plaintiff alleges.

The lawsuit requests damages, an “immediate review, testing and replacement of all ‘smart meters'” and the establishment of a trust from water bills to reimburse the class for overpayments.

Under the state’s consumer fraud and deceptive business practices act, the village could be liable if it knew its meters were defective and didn’t say anything with the intent of misleading consumers, said DePaul University law professor Max Helveston.

Tinley Park also could be liable if it said something with the intent to deceive. But if the evidence isn’t clear-cut, the village could argue, “Yeah, these meters were broken but we didn’t know better,” he said.

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Helveston said it will be interesting to see how the village handles damages if it’s found liable or if there’s a settlement because it could be difficult to figure out how much individual residents deserve. It’s possible, Helveston said, that the village would end up creating a large cash fund for individuals, who would then have to try to prove how much they were overcharged.

Adding more uncertainty to the bottom line for residents: The lawsuit raises the possibility of the village being ordered to replace the smart meters. The village has previously said it would cost $4 million to replace the water meters, or the equivalent of $179 a household. It’s a cost that could be borne by water customers themselves, as water rates are typically calculated in ways that enough is collected to supply and maintain the system.

During a town hall meeting this month, Mayor Dave Seaman, who took office in June, apologized to residents for the village’s handling of overcharging water meters.

The Tribune’s investigation revealed more than 355 cases of meters found to be overstating water flow since 2007 — more than double the 150 figure Tinley Park officials gave residents. That figure doesn’t count thousands more meter failures identified in village documents that lack information showing how they broke, or 44 more overcharging meters identified by the village this year.

Reached for comment, Seaman said he has not seen the complaint.

Larry Drury and John H. Alexander, attorneys for Jaber, could not be immediately reached.

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