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Swallowed by a Sinkhole

HOUSTON (CN) - A sinkhole swallowed a Houston woman to the shoulders after a water company failed to warn her that "bubbles in a flooded backyard is the telltale sign of a sinkhole," she claims in court.

Terrie Vernon sued the SouthWest Water Co. in Harris County Court.

She says a neighbor pulled her to safety, but she suffered a torn knee during the "horrifying" experience.

"In the early morning hours of August 29, 2011, plaintiff, Terrie Vernon, ('Mrs. Vernon') was awoken by her neighbor, Joyce Kappe ('Kappe'), knocking on her door," the complaint states.

"Kappe explained their common neighbors, Lisa and Mike Eskridge, needed help with a back yard that was quickly flooding. Mrs. Vernon immediately asked if anyone had contacted the Water Company.

"Kappe said she spoke to defendant around 4:00 a.m. and was told the leak was not their problem and that she needed to call a plumber. Lisa Eskridge contacted several plumbers but none could arrive to inspect the flooded backyard for several more hours.

"After the water continued to rise and flood the backyard, Mrs. Vernon decided to call defendant because the volume of water seemed too much to be an issue isolated to just the Eskridges' home.

"Mrs. Vernon called defendant's emergency phone number and explained the severity of the flooding, including the presence of bubbles, to defendant's employee, 'Maggie.' Mrs. Vernon was told by 'Maggie' defendant was very busy and would add her call to the repair list but no repairman would be available for at least two hours."

Vernon says she tried to help Mike Eskridge turn off his water valve, but even after it was shut off the water continued rising.

She called the water company back and was told the response time would be another two hours, she says.

"Worried about Kappe's house flooding from the rising water, Mrs. Vernon walked with Mike Eskridge into the backyard to see how high the water had risen," the complaint states.

"Mrs. Vernon took one step into the grass and immediately was swallowed up by a sinkhole just under the water surface. The mud created a vacuum-like suction which pulled Mrs. Vernon into the sinkhole up to her shoulders.

"Mrs. Vernon desperately threw her right arm in Mike Eskridge's direction who, after more than a minute of trying, was able to slowly pull her out of the sinkhole to safe ground.

"Defendant was immediately called, again, and Mrs. Vernon's horrifying sinkhole experience was relayed," the complaint states. "About forty-five (45) minutes after that call, defendant's first repairman showed up.

"By 7:30 a.m., the street was full of repairmen, trucks, tractors and bulldozers. Mrs. Vernon spoke to several repairmen, each one confirming bubbles in a flooded backyard is the telltale sign of a sinkhole and should always be avoided."

Vernon says she suffered "injuries to her right shoulder, neck, upper back and left knee, including a strained ACL and torn meniscus."

She underwent surgery on her knee and endured painful physical therapy, she says.

"In total, she incurred over $20,000 in medical expenses. Additionally, Mrs. Vernon has lost over $5,000 in wages as a direct result of her injuries," the complaint states.

She seeks punitive damages for negligence.

She is represented by Houston attorney Jason Gibson.

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