I have served as an attorney representing both rural water companies and real estate developers in Texas for quite a few years. Very often, my representation involves negotiating “nonstandard service” contracts. These are contracts governing the conditions, terms and costs under which a rural water company will extend water service to a new development. At best, there is a bit of built-in tension between the two groups: real estate developers are appropriately mindful of their bottom line and want to minimize the costs and restrictions of obtaining water service, while rural water companies have legitimate concerns that their capital costs will be paid and that some amount of warranty service is covered. I emphasize to all my clients, whether they are real estate developers or rural water companies, that their agreements must be reduced to writing, to insure there is no misunderstanding in what can very often be a complex negotiation.
A recent case, BCY Water Supply Corp. v. Residential Investments, Inc., illustrates the pitfalls when one or the other of the parties involved takes action based on (often misunderstood) oral statements. This case, decided by the 12th Court of Appeals in Tyler, Texas, involved a small rural water company serving Anderson County, Texas. The Plaintiff was a real estate developer who was the considering the purchase of a small tract of land within the water company’s service area. The developer came by the water company’s office, and visited with the water company’s bookkeeper and maintenance man. The developer questioned the maintenance man about the availability of water for the property the developer was thinking of buying. According to the developer, the maintenance man said that there would be “no problem” getting water service to the property. The maintenance man, on the other hand, testified that the developer requested a single meter at the property, and that he told the developer that, while he did not see a problem serving a single meter, all requests for service had to be directed to and approved by the board of directors and that the board might require capital improvements before service could be approved. The developer bought the property, and when he applied for service, the board of directors of the water company told him that he would have to install a new line prior to water service being supplied. The developer claimed that the representations by the maintenance man were negligent and sued the water company for denial of service.
The Court of Appeals held for the water company, ultimately. However, this litigation probably cost this small rural water company and its members dearly. The decision represents something I emphasize often to my rural water company clients: educate all your staff, whether office staff, maintenance people or operators, that whenever someone asks about the availability of water, always, and I mean always, tell them that they will have to talk to the manager of the company or the President of the board of directors. Do not guess, do not speculate and do not surmise. The maintenance man for this company was probably just trying to be helpful to this developer, and a lawsuit was the result.