After the Slide, the Sorting Out : 30 Lawyers Sign In for Conference on Big Rock Case

Times Staff Writer

There were so many attorneys in the Santa Monica courtroom that the court clerk asked them all to sign in on a yellow legal pad.

They were there for a "status conference" with Santa Monica Superior Court Judge Raymond Choate to try to streamline the tangle of lawsuits that has resulted from the September, 1983, landslide in Big Rock Mesa. At least 30 lawyers signed in.

The massive landslide threatened 300 homes on Big Rock Mesa. A dozen homes were condemned and occupants were ordered to leave. Most of the other homes are habitable but have lost their value. Homeowners and the county have been attempting to stop the slide and avoid the loss of more property.

The wave of lawsuits began last spring when 230 homeowners filed claims against several government agencies. They sued the County of Los Angeles, the Flood Control District, the state Coastal Commission and Department of Transportation and County Waterworks District 29.

More Involved

Countersuits filed by some of the government organizations last fall have drawn many more parties into the dispute, including developers, geologists and architects. The potential liability to the governments has been estimated at $500 million.

The case is on the verge of bogging down in the courts, according to some lawyers. "The case is so complex that even the judge can't figure it out," said one lawyer who asked not to be named.

Friday's meeting saw attorneys from some of the city's largest law firms representing homeowners and government agencies. Others represented insurance companies, geologists and engineers.

Observers predict that even more lawyers will enter the case as homeowners and developers respond to cross-complaints.

"At the last meeting there were 20 lawyers, at this meeting there were 30, at the next there will be 40," said one insurance company representative. "It just goes on and on."

Attorney David B. Casselman, who represents the waterworks district, said the case could become a "bonanza" for lawyers.

Several boxes of documents have been collected and depositions have already been taken from homeowners, geologists and county officials. Lawyers have scheduled more than 100 depositions in coming months.

All of the documents must be shared among the interested parties. And the cost of copying and transcribing is mounting.

Staggering Costs

"There should be some means to coordinate it so that no more than one deposition should be taken of any one person," Judge Choate told the assembled lawyers. "Think of the staggering costs to your clients."

The lawyers Friday selected two retired judges to serve as referees in gathering documents, taking depositions and hearing various legal motions.

The attorneys split into two groups and huddled at the courthouse to select judges aceptable to all parties--George M. Dell and Bernard S. Selber--from a list of retired magistrates. The lawyers also agreed to let the judges set their own salaries.

Jerrold Fadem, who represents 50 homeowners, said the referees were needed to oversee the legal discovery process because, he said, the governmental agencies were not cooperating.

"We believe the defendants (the government agencies) are trying to stonewall the discovery process," said Kenneth R. Chiate, who represents another 160 homeowners.

In other action Friday, Judge Choate transferred 49 of 50 cases pending in Santa Monica Superior Court to the Los Angeles Superior Court. Attorneys said the transfer would consolidate them with the 150 cases pending before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Maurice Hogan.

Possible Test Case

The only case remaining in Santa Monica, filed by Margaret and August Hansch, is scheduled to begin on April 8. It may serve as a test case, attorneys said.

"The human importance of solving this early cannot be overemphasized," said Fadem, who represents the Hansches. "These people's homes are falling down over their heads. . . . (They) are living in a dangerous situation, and that's why we're so thrilled with keeping the April 8 trial date."

Lawyers for the Hansches also filed a motion to separate the countersuits from the original lawsuits against the governmental agencies. Choate said he would not make a decision on that issue until Feb. 8. Until then, Choate asked the lawyers to postpone all depositions.

After the meeting, some lawyers expressed confusion about the purpose of the gathering.

But attorney Chiate said, "I think the whole purpose of the meeting was to put some rhyme and reason into the case . . . (and) to move it from the quagmire and gridlock into a process where a case can be decided."

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