Lafayette pays big tab after passing on settlement offer

City-parish government ended up paying $1.4 million to settle a lawsuit over foundation damage to a home, a case that could have been resolved four years ago for less than $12,000, according to city-parish records.

A portion of the settlement, which involved damage to a home linked to erosion along a city drainage coulee, was made public last month when the City-Parish Council voted to buy the home of Steven Dupuis Sr. and his wife, Melissa Dupuis, for $775,000.

But according to settlement documents obtained through a public records request, city-parish government paid another $625,000 in damages and litigation expenses, bringing the total settlement to $1.4 million, one of the largest payouts by local government in recent years.

City-parish government also provided internal emails that indicate Steven Dupuis had offered to settled the case for $11,517 before filing the lawsuit in 2009 for severe foundation damage to his home at 164 Twin Oaks Blvd.

Lafayette City-Parish Attorney Michael Hebert and City-Parish Chief Administrative Office Dee Stanley both declined to comment on the disparity between the final settlement and early offers in the case. Steve Dupuis, who served as city-parish attorney about 10 years ago under a previous administration, did not return two calls to his office for comment.

City-Parish Councilman Jay Castille said by the time the council was brought up to speed on negotiations, the settlement figure already was above $1 million.

Castille said he did not know the details of why early and lower settlement offers were not accepted, but believes they should have been given careful consideration considering what ended up happening.

“Personally, I think they should have taken that and ran with it,” Castille said.

Councilman William Theriot, who voted against the settlement, said city-parish government had some liability but that he couldn’t stomach the recommendation from the legal department for the final settlement.

“I think $1.4 million was excessive,” he said.

Had the case gone to trial, the Dupuis family would have sought more than $2 million in damages, according to court filings in the case last year.

The lawsuit alleged cracks in the concrete lining of Coulee Mine, a major public drainage channel that runs behind the Twin Oaks property, caused sinkholes so large the family had to build a fence to keep children away and erosion that undermined the home’s slab, which in turn led to cracks in the ceiling and walls.

Steve Dupuis had initially sought payments for repairs.

In a Nov. 30, 2009, e-mail from then-Director of Administrative Operations Gail Smith to then-Risk Manager Lewana Shearer, Smith wrote Dupuis “sent a fax Wednesday threatening to file suit tomorrow if we don’t settle today for $11,517.”

A letter from Shearer to Dupuis dated the next day, Dec. 1, 2009, stated his “claim has been discussed at every level” and the consensus was that the foundation problems and sinkholes on the Dupuis property were not related any drainage problems that could attributed to city-parish government.

The letter offered a settlement from city-parish government of $6,895.

It is unclear why or when city-parish officials began considering a much larger settlement, because city-parish government did not release any of the engineering reports on damage to the property or anything written by attorneys in the case.

They cited a provision of the state’s public records law that allows government agencies to keep secret documents that contain the opinions of experts or legal counsel.

The settlement allows the Dupuis family to remain in the Twin Oaks home until August.

Stanley said the property will be used as a staging area for repair work on the coulee, then the home could possibly be put back on the market for city-parish government to recoup some of the money paid out in the settlement.

“Potentially, it could be sold,” Stanley said. “Hopefully, we can put that back in commerce.”

The $1.4 million settlement is the second largest for city-parish government in the past five years, topped only by a $3.4 settlement in February 2013 over the City-Parish Council’s decision in 2011 to block a planned garbage transfer station on Sunbeam Lane in north Lafayette.

Developer Waste Facilities of Lafayette had already purchased the property, obtained permits and started construction at the site when the council shut down the project at the behest of residents complaining of potential odors and noise.

Waste Facilities countered with a lawsuit to recover money already tied up in the project and for future losses.