Niobrara residents recovering after dam failure learn Nebraska law limits liability provisions

Niobrara residents recovering after dam failure learn Nebraska law limits liability provisions
The remains of the Spencer Dam. (Office of Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts)

Omaha attorney David Domina traveled to Niobrara this week after fielding many inquiries about whether legal action could be taken as a result of the damage from the failure of the Spencer Dam in March.

The Niobrara Lutheran Church’s fellowship hall was full of area residents — homeowners, farmers and businessmen — some of whom suffered severe losses as a result of the wall of water that hit the part of the Niobrara business district and area farmland after the dam failed.

But Domina did not have good news.

“The Spencer Dam is owned by the Nebraska Public Power District, which is covered specifically in the state statutes under tort law,” Domina said.

Domina told the Niobrara residents that the statutes contain limited liability provisions when damage occurs. The statute determines a limit of $1 million per claim per occurrence and a limit of $5 million per occurrence for all claimants.

Domina then presented the most recent estimates from the four counties involved in the Spencer Dam incident, noting that Knox County leads the way with more than $17 million in damage.

“So you see, the counties will claim damages. If any damages are awarded … monies will dwindle quickly or be all gone,” Domina said. “I know that is not what you want to hear. No matter who you are or the circumstances, the law is specific.”

Domina said Wednesday that he’s been retained by a couple of the downstream landowners to investigate possible claims against the district, but he declined to name the clients.

District spokesman Mark Becker reaffirmed the district’s stance: An unprecedented amount of water and mammoth pieces of floating ice besieged a dam that was designed for the generation of electricity, not for flood control.

Domina said there is no doubt that the rivers have been reconfigured since 1954, but it would take a lot of science and engineering to prove who is responsible for the significant losses from that day of flooding.

One person was killed when the earth and concrete dam collapsed. The home of Kenny Angel, which was below the dam, was swept away by the wall of water and ice. His body still has not been found.

Becker said he couldn’t comment about the legal claim that Angel’s family has filed against the district.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.