Trial Begins in First of 230 Slide Suits
Nearly 22 months after a massive landslide in Malibu’s Big Rock Mesa, the first of 230 lawsuits filed against county and state agencies has come to trial before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jack T. Ryburn.
The first suit, which may serve as a test case for the others, involves the home of Margaret and August Hansch, which was completed in 1980 and destroyed in the September, 1983, slide. The Hansches are seeking $2.5 million for the value of their home, plus attorney fees and damages for emotional distress.
Along with other homeowners, the Hansches contend that the slide was caused by the County of Los Angeles, the Flood Control District, county Waterworks District 29 and the state Department of Transportation.
As many as 300 homes were threatened by the slide, which involved 150 to 250 acres. Thirty homes were condemned. The rest are habitable, but property values have plummeted, according to homeowners’ attorneys. Some lawyers estimate that the total liability in the case could exceed $100 million in property damage.
The Hansch case may have significance beyond itself. “It’s the largest aggregate damage claim associated with a landslide that I’m aware of,” said Kenneth R. Chiate, a lawyer who represents about 160 homeowners.
Hansch lawyer Richard Norton estimated that the trial could last more than 40 days. As he began his 2 1/2-hour opening statement Tuesday, Norton said that “30 years worth of history” of the mesa will be presented.
The amount of information is nearly as massive as the landslide. The lawyers have collected 80,000 pages of documents dating back to the construction of Pacific Coast Highway in 1921. They have taken 130 days of depositions.
The documents deal with “virtually all aspects of the development of the mesa, the residential development of the mesa . . . all leading up to 1983 when the large landslide occurred,” said William Vaughn, an attorney with the firm of O’Melveny & Myers retained by the county.
During the past year, there has been a great deal of maneuvering in court. In January, the lawyers for all parties decided they needed to hire two retired judges to serve as referees over the gathering of information and filing of legal motions.
After the Hansch case is decided, the public agencies may press forward with countersuits filed against more than 300 past and present homeowners, developers and architects, claiming they are responsible for the slide.
Supervisor Deane Dana said he hopes the case won’t drag on. “We don’t intend to let it go that long. Our hope is that it would be settled rather quickly,” he said.
Meanwhile, legal costs are mounting. The parties have had to pay for the referees, the depositions, studies by geologists and engineers and reproduction of documents. In December, the county hired O’Melveny & Myers, and legal fees have reached $1 million, according to Senior Deputy County Counsel John Krattli.
The Hansch trial will be split into two phases. The first phase, to be decided by Ryburn, will focus on whether public works by the agencies were a substantial cause of the slide. The second phase, which will be decided by a jury, will deal with the Hansches’ emotional distress claims.
Both sides generally agree that a significant cause of the slide was the rising level of ground water which triggered movement in the mesa. Much of the water was from septic tanks and seepage pits that allow waste water to filter into the ground rather then into sewer systems.
On Tuesday, Norton claimed in an opening argument that the agencies, by “projects, acts or omissions,” caused the landslide. Lawyers representing the agencies have said that the government did not cause the slide.
Known Since Early 1960s
Norton said county officials have known since the early 1960s that the mesa was the site of an ancient landslide, but approved residential development with seepage pits for the next 20 years. Norton cited studies and reports reviewed by the county in 1961 and 1962 that mapped the landslide and predicted that increased ground water could trigger movement.
“We believe that what the county did might be likened to a failure to respond to a ticking time bomb,” Norton said.
He said that the water district formed by the county in 1959 allowed expansion from 70 homes, which were served by a small company that pumped water from wells, to approximately 300 homes today.
In 1973, Norton said, a county study reported that the water table in the mesa had risen to 200 feet, but the county did not take action to lower the water level. Norton said that four horizontal drains the community was required to maintain for the entire mesa were inadequate to drain the water.
“Instead of solving the ground water problem,” Norton said, the county “turned (it) over to the homeowners.”
Norton believes that Caltrans is liable for cutting into the base of the mesa to widen Pacific Coast Highway. The cuts “disturbed the equilibrium” of the mesa and caused a shift downward, he said.
Lawyers for county and state agencies said that no public improvements in the area, such as roads, drains or water delivery systems, contributed to the slide.
Vaughn said the county and flood control district built the “roads, the various culverts and drains. We will attempt to show that those public improvements had the effect of removing water from the mesa that would otherwise have gone into the ground.”
Shift of Liability
David B. Casselman, lawyer for the water district, said that 80% of the water in the mesa came from homeowners’ seepage pits. “The water district does nothing more than provide water,” he said. “That is their function and they have discharged it flawlessly. . . . They (the homeowners) are trying to shift liability away from themselves as the true cause of the landslide. They have grabbed every governmental agency and tried to fashion the theory so they can make the taxpayers of Los Angeles County pay for the damage to their property.”
And Caltrans lawyer Tony Ruffolo disputed the idea that highway cuts contributed to the slide.
Vaughn said that homeowners in the first two tracts approved in 1963 were required to keep the ground water level down by maintaining the horizontal drainage system, but the project was abandoned in 1975.
He also said that the county was not at fault for approving the subdivisions on what he described as a “comparatively shallow ancient landslide. . . . Because there is a landslide or an ancient landslide does not mean that the property cannot be safely developed.”
Second Trial Phase
In the second phase of the trial, the Hansches will attempt to show, among other things, that the agencies knew the mesa was moving but failed to warn them of the danger.
Norton said county studies in 1980 and 1981 revealed that the mesa was moving, but the studies were suppressed. Two years before the slide, a letter was prepared by the geology section to warn homeowners of the danger to their property, according to documents introduced by Norton. But the letter, attached to a memo addressed to Supervisor Dana, was never sent, Norton said.
Dana, reached by telephone, denied seeing the memo or the warning letter or knowing of any landslide movement before 1983, “when the movement started.”
Vaughn and Casselman said that the warning letter was not sent out because the survey it was based on was inaccurate. The letter “was based on a survey of the Pacific Coast Highway that was proven to be an inaccurate survey and was referred to as a ‘blunder.’ When it was determined that the survey was inaccurate . . . the letter was not sent,” Vaughn said.
Norton believes the slide could have been avoided. “It only took 9 to 10 months to get rid of that water. If they had started that before the damage had been done, we’d have a different situation today.”
Homes Posted as Unsafe
Attorney Chiate, who is also a Big Rock resident, said that the mood in the area is “depressing.”
“Homes are condemned,” he said. “There are big ‘Unsafe’ signs on them. . . . You can’t get a loan or insurance. You can’t refinance the homes because they have no value.”
Many of the Big Rock homes are still occupied. Last weekend, life appeared to be normal in the mesa area that overlooks the Malibu coastline. But there were several reminders of the landslide: water and gas pipes above ground, old sandbags, pumps to remove water and county road markers.
Much of the equipment has been used in a $4-million public assessment project to stop any further movement. Dennis Evans, a geologist hired by the county to try to stop the slide, said that the efforts have been largely successful. About 100 million gallons of water have been pumped from the mesa, he said. Except for a 200-foot sea cliff which is still moving, Evans said that the main landslide has stopped.
“My interests are in trying to get the slide stopped,” he said. “If I can do that much, I will have done a day’s work. . . . I’ll let the lawyers piddle around with who they think was responsible for the slide in the first place.”