Lawyer takes on Water Authority

The Water Authority probably expected John Masters to roll over and pay up when it disconnected his water supply last week over two contested water bills.

Instead, Mr. Masters, a Crown Counsel in the Attorney General’s Chambers, has hit back, slapping the authority with a legal suit over its actions.

Mr. Masters is seeking an order preventing the authority from disconnecting his water supply while the dispute over the two contested bills, which total just over $1,350, is sorted out.

What the authority didn’t know – and what is now bound to have its management nervous – is that Mr. Masters has a history of taking on big utility companies and winning.

In 2004 Mr. Masters took UK electricity provider, npower, to court and won after the company overcharged him and then refused to admit it had made a mistake.

The case not only forced npower into issuing a humiliating public apology and review of its procedures, it also sparked a slew of legal claims from other customers that believed they had been overcharged.

Mr. Masters’ case against Cayman’s predominant water provider comes after the Caymanian Compass’s report on a Prospect man’s ordeal with a $2,325 one-month water bill prompted a barrage of complaints from other disgruntled authority customers.

They have told the Compass they have been forced to pay monthly bills as high as $2,800 under threat of disconnection after their water meters have been sent off island and were found to be working properly.

The authority insists that under the Water Authority Law, unless water meters are proven to be defective, bills must stand.

Customers have complained the authority is hiding behind the law and refusing to deal with the real problem.

According to court documents filed last week, Mr. Masters’ claim centres on bills of $665 and $703 for the months of September and October 2008.

After the October bill, Mr. Masters’ water meter was sent off-island for testing and a new one was installed. His monthly bills have since dropped to as low as $73 in December up to just under $350 in January.

The Australian-born lawyer claims the authority agreed not to disconnect him while the dispute was being sorted out but when he arrived home from work on Tuesday, 10 March, he found his meter had been turned off and bolted.

The authority returned to reconnect him later that night after Mr. Masters contacted Water Authority Director Gelia Frederick-van Genderen.

In an email to the Compass Thursday, Mrs. Frederick-van Genderen confirmed the authority intends to contest the injunction but declined to comment further.

She instead pointed to weekend newspaper advertisement in which the authority sought to reassure customers of the accuracy of their bills and provided tips on checking for leaks.

The authority said in the ads that of over 300,000 water bills issued in the past two years, there had only been 1,314 complaints alleging that accounts were high. Only 212 of those customers ultimately asked that their water meter be sent off island for testing.

The authority said that only 36 of the 212 meters sent off island were found to be non-compliant with industry standards and 28 of those meters were actually found to be undercharging.

Four meters were found to be over-registering water use, with the worst one recording water use 4.3 per cent in excess of the actual amount used.

When contacted by the Compass last week, Mr. Masters didn’t want to say too much about the upcoming action, but commented: ‘I am hopeful that reason will prevail this time and if not, I am confident that justice will.’

He had this advice for consumers who have doubts about the accuracy of their water bill: ‘Try to reason with someone in authority but don’t just ignore the situation – it will not go away.’

He added: ‘Always be polite and confirm any verbal agreements in writing.’

Mr. Masters will represent himself in the 27 March Summary Court hearing.

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