From the Forum – “It cost almost $3000 to clean and repair and now our landlords are trying to charge us the costs of the damage.”

tenant rights
Photo by PoPville flickr user Pablo Raw

Help with Tenant law? Is this legal?

“My roommate and I have shared an English Basement in Petworth for over a year now. However, our apartment recently flooded due to a drainage problem. It cost almost $3000 to clean and repair and now our landlords are trying to charge us the costs of the damage.

They are claiming that it stemmed from flushing tampons (which I seriously doubt for many reasons). And citing the abnormal usage part of our lease to justify this charge.

What do you think? Is the law on our side on this one? What steps can we take to protect ourselves?”

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92 Comment

  • Document everything in writing, don’t pay anything (or offer to pay anything) and then pay for small claims court. You’ll win.

    • not pay but PREPARE for small claims

      • Agreed with 1400. You may also want tot request a copy of the plumbing report form the landlord. A landlord tried to charge me for flooding damage once based on a similar claim and when I asked to see the plumbing report he gave up trying to charge me. I managed to see the report later (long story) and, unsurprisingly, the cause what not a tampon or abnormal usage, but a burst pipe.

    • Tampons aren’t usually a problem with the sewer connections in DC unless root infiltration of the lateral sewage line is a problem (or it’s dramatically udnersized/collapsed). That’s what cause the tampons to get caught and start a blockage in the first place.
      .
      In DC, the line from the house to the Main is often a segmented clay pipe. After decades (or a century) of use, roots of all kinds of plants will work their way into the joints connecting the segments and create problems. Roots will take any opportunity to infiltrate iron and pvc as well, but it’s just a matter of time with the clay pipes.
      .
      My guess is that roots are the culprit. If you can confirm that is the case, not only should the owner incur the costs of the damages, but they should also pay for their line to be cleared (not just unclogged, but actually cleared of roots). If the penetration is particularly bad, they should have the pipe lined or replaced.

      • Have you ever put a tampon in a glass of water to see what it does over time? Definitely NOT OK.
        Unless the landlord can prove this was part of the plumbing associated with only the basement apartment, he/she is being quite foolish by trying to pass this charge along to the tenants.

    • All DC standard lease documents have a specific provision in them stating that the renter is responsible for drain back-up see Page. 2 item 14. You will lose in court if you lease agreement is this version or contains this language any adult knows not to flush tampons.

      • Wow! Good to know. And scary since all the drain back-ups at my place are due to roots in the terra-cotta pipes.

      • Not true that “any adult knows not to flush tampons” — the packaging says they’re flushable.
        .
        As this thread has established, flushing them is Not A Good Idea. But many people don’t know this.

  • Contact the DC Tenants advocate, they’ll be able to tell you your rights. Sounds like a pretty clear cut case of the landlords negligence though.

    • Agreed, contact DC Office of the Tenant Advocate. You can arrange to meet with someone knowledgeable of DC tenant law and they can help explain your legal options. You could also seek some advice from the Landlord Tenant Resource Center, a free walk-in (first come first served. Arrive early, put your name on the list and wait to be called) service located in Building B of the DC Superior Court, 510 4th St NW. If you need low cost legal assistance, the DC Tenants Rights Center is an option – they have an online form, someone will contact you. Otherwise, find a landlord-tenant lawyer. You can likely take your landlord to Small Claims Court without hiring representation though, it’s designed to be sort of a self-service operation and hopefully this will be resolved quickly for you. If you’re lucky, just the act of filing a case will get your landlord to fold. Good luck!

  • When I was a property manager for a RE agency we had a similar issue. The first time a basement flooded it was diagnosed that the problem was indeed tampons, but because flushing them is standard procedure (the labels say so, right?) we did not pursue them for the repair. We did inform them that that was the problem in writing and that they were to no longer flush them and they didn’t. If they had continued the flushing after having been on notice then we could have charged them for subsequent damage.

    • SAY WHAT?!?! Flushing tampons is NOT standard procedure.

      • Not to get too personal, but flushing applicators is not normal procedure. The tampons themselves are flushable…

        • Actually they AREN’T. As a homeowner who thought this, did it, had our basement flood, plumber came, pulled out tampon, I can tell you that they do cause massive issues especially in older homes/ city pipes.

          This happened again after a guest flushed one. I now panic anytime anyone uses the bathroom.

          • New tampons are much more “expandable” and a genuine problem for sewers – both old and new. I have a very clear stipulation in my leases that nothing but toilet paper can be flushed. But if it is not in your lease, then I don’t think your landlord has any claim.

          • Seriously? My mind is blown by this information. Clearly I need to have some serious words with my mother…

            and consider other options.

          • Yep. Packaging aside. Other options are…wrapping them in toilet paper and throwing them away.

    • Pretty sure that flushing bulky, liquid-absorbing items is NOT standard procedure, or at the very least not a good idea.

      • Then why do they say, in their instructions, that they are flushable? Plastic applicators, no. But the tampons themselves, yes. Now, if the plumbing is old or there are other issues, then that should be explained to the tenants and there should be language in the lease saying they should not flush tampons. Otherwise, they shouldn’t be blamed for doing something that is common behavior.

        • bc manufacturers are not taking into account 100 yr old plumbing systems

        • HaileUnlikely

          I suspect they say in the instructions that they are flushable because it’s easier to sell a product whose use can be characterized as simple and convenient, and short of an unlikely class-action lawsuit, the mechanism for holding Proctor and Gamble responsible for your clogged pipe does not exist, so they can get away with it. Same with baby wipes, moist towelettes, etc.
          .
          Anyway, unless the lease explicitly prohibited flushing tampons down the toilet, I think you should win easily in small claims court, however, I also would strongly advise you not to flush tampons down the toilet, and if you ever own your own place, I suspect that all of a sudden you’ll remember this conversation and not want to flush them any more, instructions on box be damned.

        • As others have highlighted, it all seems to be a matter of the age of the pipes in the building and what one’s mother said about flushing tampons. My mom made it very clear they could never, ever be flushed, and we even lived in a house built in the 1980’s. When I lived in a 100-year old co-op, it was in the rules for the building that owners would be liable for damage caused by clogs from tampons (and also baby wipes, kitty litter, paper towels, grease, or hair (?!?)).
          .
          I guess I never bothered to believe that Kotex was going to be all that honest about where tampons may or may not get stuck, and my experience has always been that they shouldn’t be flushed. There are plenty of bars and restaurants around town that say don’t flush tampons, as well.
          .
          But I guess if your defense is “the box said I could,” then perhaps the renter should see if her landlord can sue the tampon company?

        • SilverSpringGal

          Just being real – Kotex or Playtex or whatever may not be lying. If you don’t live in U.S. cities with super-long histories and century-old homes then maybe its not an issue. Never ran into this problem anywhere in the suburbs for instance with houses on state water lines or septic tanks.

          • No it is a problem in the suburbs too!! Stop, don’t flush tampons. I grew up in a house in the suburbs built in the 80s with septic tank and it was a no there too!

          • Flushing tampons into a septic system is a major no-no. Where do you think they go? Under your yard, blocking the sand and gravel that are the filtration system for your waste.

        • This is the like the products that say they are “flushable wipes” but cause major sewer problems.

    • Yes, it can happen. Several years ago we had a problem when our basement tenant clogged a pipe by flushing a tampon. Fortunately we addressed it before there was any major backup or damage. Unrelated but my sister-in-law had a MAJOR plumbing disaster at a vacation home she owned; turns out renters had been flushing dental floss down the toilet. (Cleanup revealed numerous other nasties like used condoms.) And two years ago, houseguests clogged our own pipes in a big way by flushing (non-flushable) sanitary wipes.

      • It really depends where you live. I grew up in California and since nothing there is older then 50 years, I’d never even heard of the problem flushing them – it was a given to do so. It’s only since I’ve moved to DC that I even encountered the issue.

  • Not sure about your rights, but it’s true you shouldn’t flush tampons. Our old houses have small, easily clogged waste lines. My line got clogged by tampons, and it was an expensive fix. I own the house, so it wasn’t a case of a landlord trying to pull a fast one on me.

    • +1 same thing happened to me

    • +1
      I’m not surprised by this issue. Same thing happened to us, also in Petworth. Our house is renovated. New inside, but same old pipes leading out from the house to the street.
      It did not cost nearly $3,000 to fix.
      I’m not sure that the tenant doesn’t have any responsibility here.

    • west_egg

      Correct. This is also true for “flushable moist wipes” and similar convenience products.

  • Check your lease for any provisions about you agreeing not to flush certain objects (tampons, paper towels, cat litter (I kid you not), etc.).

  • Tell the landlord to ask his mother or sister or female relatives how “abnormal” it is to use tampons, and to flush them down the toilet (since he’s claiming that constitutes “abnormal use”). God hearing shit like this just makes me angry.

    Anyway, the above commenters have given good advice – good luck!

    • Really? I have never flushed a tampon in my life. One of those things my mother told me very early on because it can clog pipes (and is just bad for the environment). The same protocol goes for condoms. You don’t flush them.

      • Agreed. With three girls my parents were always yelling at us about that so it stuck with me. Then in DC knowing these old houses have old pipes along with DC’s old pipes just seems like a bad idea.

        • Perhaps this can be a Friday Question of the Day: “How many of you flush tampons?” Ha.

          • +1000 Can we make this the friday question, along with Ari’s pics from the water treatment plant? I can’t believe so many people think flushing a highly absorbent tampon (to say nothing of a plastic applicator) is a good idea.

          • Yes! Although the pics might need a disclaimer!!!

      • Agreed and I had no idea others still think flushing tampons (and condoms?!?) is ok! Don’t flush tampons. Ever.

        • I have never in my life been told to not flush a tampon. Maybe this is a thing in areas with old houses? My mom taught me to wrap the applicator or a used pad in toilet paper before throwing it out, but tampons always went in the toilet. The box says they’re flushable! If it was common knowledge that this was not the case, then they wouldn’t put it on the friggin box.

          • I found this out at 18 from my first landlord and was so grateful someone told me, as I’d always flushed them to that point. Wrap ’em up discretely and toss them with your applicator (or use OB and no applicator needed!).

          • In order to call tampons flushable, they are only required to clear the first bend in your pipe. So by that definition, you can flush them. But I would encourage you to google a bit about why doing so is a bad idea. It’s really not difficult to just throw them in the trash.

          • Agreed with AG. I knew that pads (a.k.a. sanitary napkins) shouldn’t be flushed, but the packaging for tampons says they’re flushable and no one ever told me otherwise.
            .
            It wasn’t until I read a New York Times article on so-called “flushable” wipes a year or so ago that I started thinking that flushing tampons might not be such a good idea after all.

          • I have never been told not to flush a tampon – nor have I ever seen signage that instructed me not to flush tampons. The applicators, of course not, the the tampon itself – I had no idea they could cause such issues! I know that sanitary pads, condoms, other items should not be flushed, but never, ever heard that about tampons!

        • I grew up flushing tampons in the toilet. The only time I heard I shouldn’t was when I dated a live-aboard boater 12 years ago who said to throw them away and use his special marine toilet paper. They’ve been around for decades. Is there a history with DC plumbing and flushing tampons that goes back decades? Or is this just a new thing because we’re seeing old tree roots compromise DC pipes? Genuinely curious.

          • SilverSpringGal

            Ughhh, that brought about some bad memories. I once worked at a company in SW on the water…and lets just says that they made artful use of cat litter.

  • SilverSpringGal

    Wouldn’t a licensed and professional plumber be able to confirm the assertion that it was overuse of sanitary products that caused the damage to the system? Honestly, I’ve never heard of not flushing tampons outside of cruise ships and airlines where by nature of the place, they only have so much available plumbing. For a house hooked up into the city system…this shouldn’t happen.

    • You should quit it now, especially if you own a home. My DC city house has $1000 burned due to 2 tampon incidents (once mine, once a guest)

    • My brother was a master plumber and tampons were the bane of his service call work. Known in the trade as “mice,” if the owner was there he would thrust a handful of the swinging things towards the household females and say through gritted teeth “You CAN’T FLUSH these things!” He always delivered service with a lecture.

      • SilverSpringGal

        :-/ Lesson learned but I can’t help but chuckle. And I own a condo…should I be worried AA?

        • Can’t say. When my sis and her daughters lived with me they refused to comply with my no flush request. 5 years later no backup. Doesn’t mean they aren’t waiting…somewhere in the line…to clump when there is a buildup of some sort.

  • Our backyard drain in Columbia Heights backed up and flooded into the basement (it seeped right through the walls). The reason for the back-up was because YEARS tampons and sanitary napkins had clogged the single pipe that feeds from the housing into the sewer line under the street. It was totally disgusting to see that huge ball of gunk get snaked out by the plumber.
    .
    However, if the landlord did not specifically tell you to to not flush tampons, you should be in the clear. My ex-landlord now has that in the lease and will charge future tenants for any tampon-related flushing. It’s impossible for your landlord to prove that you’re the ones who caused the back-up. My guess is that there’s many years of tampons clogging the pipe. Futhermore, if any women live in or visit your landlord’s house, I can guarantee that they also contributed to the problem.

  • Ditto! It was a life changer. Also as a friendly reminder to all…please DO NOT flush tampons, sanitary napkins, etc. down the toilet. As someone who has taken a tour of DC Water’s wastewater treatment plant, those items (and diapers!!!) are very burdensome for them to deal with. I have photos of DC Water’s trash traps to prove it.

  • PSA: Do not flush tampons. Yes, this has long been common practice and yes, the boxes tell you they can be disposed that way (at least they used to). I only recently learned that this is a terrible idea because not only can it clog your pipes but it leads to issues along the entire waste water system (google for more info). And if you think about what a tampon is designed to do (i.e., absorb liquid), it makes sense that it would be a bad idea to flush them. Just throw them in the trash. You can buy little bags to dispose of them in or just wrap them in some toilet paper.

  • Sadly haven’t had to deal w/ that level of backup, but I’ve been astounded at what tenants attempted to shove down a drain. Your drain is NOT a substitute for a trash can. Even if it blends/shreds it shouldn’t go down your drain. Favorite things I’ve had to deal with include: an entire bowl of pasta, including silverware down the sink, Shot glasses and beer cans down the sink. Paper towels, dirt, condoms. If you look at what dc water says goes down the drain, its the 3-p’s only (pee, poo, paper)

  • Tampons, baby wipes, condoms, q-tips and dental floss will royally screw up your plumbing. Did I forget anything?

  • How do they know you use tampons?
    How do they know that you are the only person who has ever used tampons that has lived in that house?

    • I thought this was the OP’s point (although others seem to be caught up on the tampon issue).
      “flushing tampons (which I seriously doubt for many reasons).”

      I thought OP meant explicitly that they don’t think it’s that because they DON’T flush/use them. At least that was my interpretation.

  • Another curse to sewage treatment: the growing use of “flushable” wipes for babies and non-babies. Yes, they flush, but they don’t break down and are a huge cost to clean out at the plants.

  • I can’t believe so many people flush their tampons… learn something new everyday.

    I guess it isn’t something you’d usually talk about with your friends, so if you do it one way you’d never know the difference.

    While people are thinking about it, don’t flush those wipes either!! Our building sent out a big thing about it.

  • General Grant Circle

    As an aside and word of advice related to this – even if tampons say they are flushable, dont, as some plumbing systems are older.

  • This reminds me of a friend’s rental in Seattle. The landlord made a point of being awkward and telling all three girls – “ladies there are two things old pipes don’t like, potato skins and cotex. So don’t flush your cotex okay?”

    The real problem…root infiltration on a 90 year old house. I still laugh about cotex and potato skins.

  • On a similar note, I saw a piece on one of those Dateline-type shows that talked about how damaging handi-wipe type clothes are to sewers and sanitation/public works departments. Because they’re made from nylon fibers instead of cotton they don’t break down and dissolve as easily. They showed these huge machines that process all the paper and every 30 minutes they have to stop the machine and remove all the clogged handi-wipes. Even though the package says they are flushable they cause major damage and problems with at the sanitation department.

  • Don’t pay anything. Counter sue for damage to any personal items and disruption to your living space, which he is responsible for maintaining.

  • Here’s the rule:
    If it doesn’t disintegrate quickly in water, it is not meant to be flushed. Anything you put in the pipes should be able to be broken down by water.

  • As others have suggested, please read the “abnormal usage” section of your lease carefully and proceed from there. I would think that your landlord would have homeowners’ insurance that might reimburse him/her for the costs. In any case I would also strongly consider renter’s insurance and possibly with a liability rider.

  • All DC standard lease documents have a specific provision in them stating that the renter is responsible for drain back-up see Page. 2 item 14. You will lose in court if you lease agreement is this version or contains this language any adult knows not to flush tampons.

  • If you have been flushing tampons then you should pay the repair bill. Call your renters insurance company, you shouldn’t be paying a deductible.

    Tampons can royally mess up plumbing. I have never flushed a tampon in my life for this reason.

  • Hmm, I was raised in an 150+ year old Brooklyn Brownstone with always at least five women (including tenants) in the building for almost two decades. The don’t flush tampons lesson was never taught to me and (knock on wood) my childhood home never had back up sewage issues. I’ve lived in an almost 90 year old DC rowhouse for 8 years and have always flushed tampons. Hmmm, this discussion has been enlightening. I must call my sis in South Africa to further discuss as my niece is in the puberty stage (just turned 12) and if this is such a big deal, I guess we’ll need to school my niece for when her time comes. Pads and paper towels were always a no, and my dad always told us to use a filter for hair washing days (we’re Black and washing in the kitchen sink was more normal, than showers), but nothing was said about tampons. Hmmmmmmm.

    • +1 to sink washing

      They even make these little neck rests for kids now to make sink washing easier! I wish I had thought of it first!

  • Step 1: Document everything in writing, and get documentation from the landlord.
    Step 2: Check your lease for any provision that pertains to repairs, flooding etc. This could be important.
    Step 3: Contact Office of Tenant Advocate. You can also go to DC landlord tenant court in Judiciary Square and talk to the LT resource center.

    If you have a provision in your lease concerning plumbing repairs, that may or may not govern the situation. Then again, it might not — leases can have all sorts of provisions that are not enforceable in court. Also, do you have renters insurance? That may cover it, though its somewhat doubtful (homeowners insurance, for example, rarely covers flood damages).

    If you end up refusing to pay, be prepared for the landlord to take it out of your security deposit. If that happens, know that wrongly withholding a security deposit can be punished by treble damages (payable to you), although you’d have to go to court to get your money (plus, you might not get treble damages if the withholding was a reasonable mistake).

  • The only thing you should ever flush (beyond bodily waste) is toilet paper. My dad worked for the water/sewage department as an engineer for several years, and he ingrained that in us growing up. Don’t even flush those supposedly flushable wet wipes.

  • My reaction: Your landlord is bluffing. Major proof issues here. They need plumber to say that’s the issue, and you’re going to get benefit of doubt as tenant. Even if plumber says tampons and links to you, then they still have to get a judge to agree abnormal use. That will cost them way way more than $3k in legal fees. They won’t risk it. $3k is nothing. That is less than 9 hours of attorney time.
    .
    If you paid, then demand reimbursement. Consider withholding rent. File claim in landlord tenant court. Your landlord will fold like a cheap applicator.
    .
    If they want you to reimburse them, respond LOL. They will drop it.

  • I am completely shocked to hear that so many people don’t flush tampons in their own homes. I’d guess that the overwhelming majority of women flush their tampons (though not the applicators, of course), and this is precisely why public places have to put up signs if they don’t want you to do it. My guess is that flushing used tampons is about as common as littering with your used cigarette butt. There may be good reasons not to do it, but most people do it (and indeed, tampon directions encourage the practice). Given that I own an older home now, I’m going to rethink the practice after reading this thread!

  • Submitter doesn’t deny flushing tampons, so there’s no denying of the cause-and-effect. I’m a dude, but even I had heard that flushing feminine personal hygiene products is a no-no. I think the landlord is correct in trying to get the tenant to pay for the result of negligence, even if unintentional. This was not normal wear and tear, so the tenant should be responsible. The tenant can then go after the manufacturer of the tampon for false claims.

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