Bad Reruns

The toilet backed up, overflowed and soaked the hardwood floors in raw sewage. On a Saturday morning, Olivia Jolly's four-bedroom northwest Houston house was coated in three inches of human waste.

"There was actual sewage and shit in our bathtub," Jolly says. "The water went under the bathtub, soaked through the wall and into the living room. It just spread."

Two days before, Time Warner had dug a hole in her backyard and replaced the cable line during a routine repair. A family friend told Jolly that the worker might have hit the sewer line.

A Time Warner customer service supervisor told Jolly that if she could prove it was the cable company's fault, she could get reimbursed. In the meantime, the supervisor told her to call a plumber. "She said, 'You can flip through the Yellow Pages just as well as I can,' " Jolly says.

When the plumber arrived, he discovered that the sewer line's four-inch-thick PVC pipe was pierced by a red Time Warner Cable pipeline. A Time Warner field supervisor told Jolly that it happens all the time.

Jolly, a 24-year-old preschool teacher, contacted a family friend at the mayor's office who referred her to Councilman Bruce Tatro's office. A lady in Tatro's office put Jolly in touch with Time Warner customer service, who referred Jolly to a contractor, who referred her to yet another contractor, who installed the pipe.

The shit-soaked gray carpet was ripped out along with the living room's year-old parquet floors. Preliminary cleanup costs were about $3,000 -- not including the $700 plumbing bill and approximately $6,500 in clothes, furniture and bedding that were destroyed in the flood. Jolly also lost several quilts and towels that she used to soak up the sewage. "We couldn't get them clean," Jolly says. "We washed them over and over again."

A couple of weeks after the flood, Jolly's two-year-old son, Logan, started having constant tummy aches, diarrhea and vomiting. His pediatrician diagnosed him with a bacterial infection most likely caused by exposure to contaminated sewage. (Jolly says Logan touched the dirty floor, then put his hands in his mouth. Plus, Jolly says, she didn't know that it wasn't a good idea to drink the water from the clogged-up kitchen sink.)

Logan couldn't go to day care sick, and Jolly didn't have anyone to baby-sit him, so she couldn't go to work. She took a leave of absence, but by the time her son was healthy again, the preschool had replaced her.

Without income, she couldn't pay her cable bill. On August 2, Time Warner representatives picked up her four digital cable boxes and mailed her an invoice for $1,420.92.

Before the flood, Jolly had already spent a year arguing and feeling frustrated with Time Warner. Her digital cable channels were often scrambled and many stations were blacked out with Time Warner's polite white-lettered notice saying that the station is temporarily unavailable and will return shortly.

When she called customer service to complain about paying for channels she couldn't watch, she says, she was told she had a faulty cable box. She took the box to be repaired twice, but the problem persisted. Repair people told her there must be something wrong with her television set, but the 42-inch Toshiba flat-screen was brand-new. In May, a repair person went next door, jiggled the cable wires and everything worked fine.

A couple of weeks later, Time Warner representatives dug a hole in Jolly's backyard. They told her that they periodically replace the casing around underground cable wires so they won't go bad, she says. Two nights later, her toilets started bubbling and wouldn't flush.

The next morning, her house was filled with sewage.

Last week, Jolly filed a lawsuit against Time Warner Cable, Horizon Communications Inc. (which contracts with Time Warner) and AHK Contractors (the subcontractor who installed the pipe that burst the sewer).

"I'm sorry it had to go to that level," says Councilman Tatro. "Had I been aware of it, I definitely would've contacted the general manager [at Time Warner], and I think the results might have been different. Time Warner didn't do this lady justice, obviously. That's unfortunate. We've had good results with Time Warner responding before."

Time Warner's vice president of public affairs, Ray Purser, refused to comment on the situation. "We don't comment on any litigation of any kind," Purser said. He wouldn't answer questions about standard repair procedures, or discuss whether it is common practice to replace pipes and if the pipes have ever skewered sewer lines before.

Horizon's president, Gregg Witwen, did not respond to the Press's request for an interview. And AHK did not answer the phone.

Jolly didn't want to sue, she just wanted her house to be cleaned. Her lawyer, Greg Travis, made dozens of phone calls and wrote long letters telling the contractors and insurance companies to take care of his client and stop dragging out the process.

The initial estimates to clean up the damage are approximately $25,000. Mold now grows in collapsed below-sink cabinets and on the bathroom floor where the wet wallpaper peeled away. Sewage seeped into the walls, soaking the insulation and breeding toxic mold, Travis says. Once the walls are torn out, he says, mold remediation and cleanup costs could double. "It's one thing to clean up the sewer. It's another to go in and get behind the walls in the corners," Travis says.

He asked the insurance company for a $60,000 settlement to cover cleaning, lost wages, medical bills and attorney fees.

The insurance company offered $11,000.

"There was no way that was going to pay for anything," Jolly says.

Her lawyer nods. "And they knew it," Travis says. "If they had taken care of this family from the get-go, they would have sent $30,000 and we'd all go home happy and I wouldn't have a case. But they got greedy."

The plumber's temporary repair was supposed to last several months. But two weeks ago the pipe broke and flooded the house again. The toilets and sinks backed up and the concrete floor was coated in two inches of sewage. "It's got nowhere to go," Travis says.

With the walls and floors still wet, mold continues to spread, Jolly says, and her son is still sick. His eyes water, his nose is stuffy, and he has trouble breathing, she says. Whenever she takes him out of the house, his allergies disappear and he seems healthy again.

She's opened the windows and doors every day for the last five months and burned candles nonstop, but she says the house still isn't clean. She has a musty, smelly closet filled with sewage-soaked boxes she doesn't want to touch, but she doesn't want to throw them away, because they contain her birth certificate and baby books.

She's never ordering cable again, she says. Never.

"She's getting a satellite dish," Travis says.

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Wendy Grossman
Contact: Wendy Grossman