Water Company, Community Group at Fault in Rolling Hills Slide, Jury Rules

Times Staff Writer

After a yearlong trial, a jury on Wednesday ruled that acts of man, not heavy rainfall, caused a slow-moving landslide in Rolling Hills that has destroyed or damaged as many as 30 luxury homes since 1980.

The unanimous verdict in Torrance Superior Court supported the current or former owners of 22 properties, who said that actions by the Rolling Hills Community Assn., which maintains roads and other common areas in the city, and California Water Service Co. are partly responsible for the slide.

The jury also assigned responsibility to three other former defendants, but all made cash settlements with the property owners before or during the trial. The property owners, most of whom still live in the rustic, sea-view area known as the Flying Triangle, were held blameless.

A separate trial by the same jury, expected to start at the end of the month, will determine the monetary award to the property owners, who sued for $31 million. The earlier settlements, which total more than $5 million, will be taken into account in determining the final amount, according to attorneys for the owners.

The complex trial was the longest in Torrance Superior Court history, involving some 800 exhibits, numerous expert witnesses and more than three weeks of jury deliberation.

In reaching their verdict, jurors rejected defendants' arguments that excessive rainfall in the late 1970s--what attorneys have called an act of God or Mother Nature--saturated the ground and reactivated an ancient landslide.

Owners contended that the association used canyons in the city's Flying Triangle area as a drainage system, eroding canyon walls that supported the land. They also asserted that numerous leaks in water lines--as well as a break in a major water main--helped keep the land moving after the slide began.

The jury found the water company and the association each 17.5% responsible for the slide as it affects 17 properties. For five other properties in a small area where land movement first started, the liability is 25% and 10%, respectively.

The figures will not be announced until this morning, but they were disclosed by attorneys and confirmed by trial Judge Frank Baffa.

Ironically, the largest share of blame--50%--was assigned to Lockwood-Singh engineers, who investigated prospective Flying Triangle home sites in the late 1960s and concluded that development was safe. The engineers settled the case during the trial, for $900,000, according to a source.

The jury assigned 10% of the blame to Los Angeles County and 5% to Rolling Hills because they allowed the homes to be built and, in the city's case, controlled some drains. The county settled for $2.9 million and the city for $1.5 million before the trial.

"I was having a happy new year until this," commented water company attorney Charles Bennett outside the courtroom.

Association attorney Ted Armbruster said he was disappointed that the jury did not place some blame on owners, contending that water has seeped into the slide from their septic tanks.

Verdict Called Vindication

Property owners called the jury decision a vindication of their seven-year effort to prove that they are victims of a landslide that the various agencies might have been able to prevent or lessen.

Rolling Hills is a private, gated city where the community association--made up of all property owners--maintains roads, horse trials, some drains and common areas.

Major Langer, attorney for most of the owners and himself a plaintiff as a Flying Triangle resident, asserted that even after repeated warnings, the association "continued to use the Flying Triangle as a drainage system and still does."

Physician Richard Hoffman, who said he tried unsuccessfully to get the association to help when the slide was still small, called the trial "a chance for an impartial group to listen to our complaints." Hoffman and his wife, Carol, sold their Flying Triangle home and moved to another part of Rolling Hills in 1984.

"Living with this was like living with a metastasizing cancer for four years," said Carol Hoffman. "Early on, we had a correctable problem. Instead, the association acted as if there was nothing it could do."

Marge Schmit, association president, said the association is insured but did not expect to be held liable. "I felt we did everything we were able to do. . . . (The slide) is all on private property."

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