Travelers Property Casualty Co. is suing the City of Chicago and its water district for $26 million in damages caused when more than 1 million gallons of Chicago River water flooded into a 110-story skyscraper during a 2020 storm.  

The insurer filed the lawsuit May 1 in federal court alleging that the city and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District mishandled opening floodgates, causing damage to the Willis Tower at 233 S. Wacker Drive, formerly the Sears Tower, and to construction work occurring in the building for a repositioning project.

The lawsuit stems from a May 2020 rainstorm during which Travelers asserts that the district opened the floodgates and/or locks of the river, but "certain gates were not opened or were only partially opened, which allowed water levels in the river to rise well above flood stage and overwhelm the sewer system causing it to fail."

The insurer notes that the city and agency either individually or jointly managed and controlled the height of the river near the building and had responsibility for operating the Chicago River Lock and Controlling Works. 

ENR reported in 2020 that more than 8 in. of rain fell between May 15 and 17 across the greater Chicago area, flooding lower Wacker Drive and raising river heights, including the highest levels recorded on the river in more than 60 years.  

The district opened the gates to Lake Michigan and attempted to reverse the flow of the river to pump the water into the lake, away from residences and businesses, but the water level in the lake was so high on May 17 that the operation did not immediately work. For the district to reverse the flow of the Chicago Area Waterways, the river must be higher than the lake.

The complaint alleges that the flooding of private property “was foreseeable because [the district] knew or should have known that the system it had constructed, operated, and/or maintained was inadequate and would result in flooding of adjacent properties.” 

The lawsuit also charges that the agency and city violated the Illinois Constitution that says "private property shall not be taken or damaged for public use without just compensation as provided by law."

Both the city and district are guilty of a breach of statutory duty and negligent failure to remedy a known dangerous condition, according to the complaint.  

Neither Traveler’s, its law firm nor city officials responded to requests for comment. 

Allison Fore, public and intergovernmental affairs officer for the district, said it does not comment on pending litigation. 

Willis Tower is 50 years old this year. The final piece of steel was laid in the building on May 3, 1973. The repositioning project was completed by Turner in 2021.