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Big Rock Mesa Landslide Case a Mega-Trial

Times Staff Writer

Michael B. Ross has spent most of the last week sitting at a drafting table in his Sonoma office, designing the largest courtroom in the United States.

Barring a last-minute settlement, the courtroom will be the site of a colossal legal battle beginning early next year in Los Angeles. The mega-trial of the Big Rock Mesa landslide case, which pits about 250 Malibu homeowners and their insurance companies against Los Angeles County and several other government agencies, could be one of the biggest and longest civil trials ever held in the nation.

When the courtroom is completed, it will resemble a futuristic, high-tech arena more than a traditional judicial chamber. It will be filled with cameras, giant video screens and television monitors. The 36 jurors will be equipped with stereo headphones to drown out the private conversations between the judge and any of the 275 lawyers present. When attorneys raise an objection, they will push a button that will light up the electronic panel in front of the judge. A huge conference room and small office complex will adjoin the courtroom.

Ross, a self-styled “judicial architect,” promises that despite the size of the court, his design will emphasize the “dignity” of the proceedings. It will be a difficult task. He is now negotiating with officials from the downtown Embassy Hotel and the Hollywood Palladium, the preferred site, to turn one of the huge auditoriums into a 24,000-square-foot courtroom.

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The Los Angeles site will be nearly three times bigger than the nation’s largest existing courtroom, which Ross also designed. His firm transformed a San Francisco opera and ballet theater into the site of a massive asbestos-liability trial.

In that case, where about $2.5 billion is at stake, about 70 asbestos manufacturers and insurance companies have been sued by tens of thousands of workers who have been exposed to the cancer-causing mineral. The trial, now winding to a finish, is 3 1/2 years old.

But in the upcoming Los Angeles mega-trial, a case that abounds with astonishing numbers, many Los Angeles County taxpayers will only care about one: It will be among the most expensive ever, with estimates of more than $100 million for attorneys’ fees alone. That figure halves the $200 million in damages sought by the Malibu homeowners and matches the amount sought from the homeowners by the county and other government agencies. How much the taxpayers must bear will depend on the outcome of the trial.

The cost of the courtroom’s construction is estimated to be as high as $1 million. Just to lease the auditorium space would cost $1.3 million for two years. The trial is expected to last between two and five years.

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Contestants say the staggering size and mind-boggling numbers involved in the case blur the real issues. Can justice be found in what some attorneys say will be a “circus-like atmosphere?” And can there be any winners in a case that, so far, has cost the county nearly $7 million to defend and may drag on more than a decade after the massive slide destroyed or damaged 250 Malibu homes?

“I think the whole thing is a joke, a terrible joke,” said Margaret Richards, president of Concerned Citizens for Water Control, a group of landslide victims. “The only people who can win in this case are the attorneys. . . .”

Ten days ago, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Maurice Hogan Jr., who will preside, set a Feb. 15 trial date for the Malibu homeowners. As required by law, Hogan scheduled a separate trial in late November for six Big Rock Mesa homeowners over the age of 70, including actor John Houseman.

The homeowners are suing the county for approving development of the hillside area above Pacific Coast Highway about 2 miles north of Topanga Canyon with seepage pits and horizontal drains rather than sewers. They claim that the county’s action contributed to a rise in ground water, which triggered the landslide on Big Rock Mesa in 1983. The slide cracked walls, floors, driveways, tennis courts and the winding roads in the affluent neighborhood.

About 30 homes were condemned by the county as unsafe and the value of the others, many priced over $1 million, plummeted.

The county, in turn, filed more than 300 countersuits against past and present homeowners, claiming that they are to blame for the disaster because they did not drain water from the mesa and contributed to the slide by using septic tanks, showers, toilets and refused to allow the county to build sewers there. Homeowners’ attorney Richard Norton said the county’s suit basically charges the homeowners with causing the landslide by “using their homes the way normal people do, flushing their toilets and showering.”

Attorneys for the homeowners and the county say that they would prefer not to stage a huge trial, but have been unable to reach a settlement or even come close to an agreement on how the case should be tried. The lawyers involved represent some of Los Angeles’ largest and most prestigious law firms, including O’Melveny & Myers and Parker, Milliken, Clark & Samuelian, two of the private firms hired by the county. Both firms are large contributors to members of the Board of Supervisors.

Lawyers on both sides accuse each other of contributing to the stalemate. Kenneth Chiate, one of the principal attorneys for the homeowners, said that the county purposely delayed the case, meanwhile running up millions in attorneys’ fees and court costs. Chiate said the county should just settle out of court for $35 million (with the state and the insurance agencies each paying an equal sum), rather than spending millions in attorneys’ fees and more than $200 million if they lose.

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Chiate said the county should follow the state’s lead in the case. After the state was found liable in a separate trial for contributing to the landslide by Caltrans’ cutting through the hillside to build Pacific Coast Highway, attorneys negotiated a $25-million settlement to be shared by the homeowners who sued Caltrans. Those settlement checks, averaging about $55,000 per home, were mailed last week.

“I think the mega-trial will be a mega-disaster,” Chiate said. “It’s a disaster for our clients and for the taxpayers. In one case, the county spent more than $5 million defending one case, when they could have settled for $2 million. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

In that case, involving homeowners Margaret and August Hansch, the couple were awarded more than $2 million from Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jack T. Ryburn in 1985. Ryburn said that the county was responsible for the slide that reduced the Hansch’s dream home to rubble, because county officials had approved development of the mesa without a proper sewer system.

The state Court of Appeal overturned the judgment in June, ruling that mere approval of plans does not make government agencies responsible for private developments. The state Supreme Court upheld the appeals court decision, but said that it would not be binding on the cases involving other Big Rock Mesa homeowners.

Chiate said he has offered to make the November trial binding for all the homeowners in order to settle the case once and for all, but the county has resisted.

However, David Casselman, one of the county’s attorneys, said that the homeowners’ lawyers previously had said that the Hansch case would be considered a test case for the other lawsuits, and that the other homeowners would be bound by the verdict. Chiate denied it.

“It’s our opinion that the decision in (the Hansch) case should cover all of the other cases,” Casselman said. “The mega-trial is going to be very expensive and, I believe, unwarranted, but if (the case) must be tried again, then that’s the only way to do it. . . .”

Although supervisors and the county counsel’s office have decided to vigorously defend the case, Bill Pellman, senior assistant county counsel, said that the county might be willing to settle if the money were to be spent on making the “physical improvements” to fix the geologic problems on Big Rock Mesa rather than just paying off the homeowners.

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Pellman added that the county is confident a settlement won’t even be necessary because of a pending motion to dismiss the Big Rock lawsuits based on the county’s victory in the Hansch case. Hogan will hear that motion Oct. 28.

The stalemate brought Ross into the case. Hogan contacted his firm after it became apparent that a mega-trial would be needed. “This is just the trend at a time when you have extremely complex litigation involving a tremendous amount of people,” Ross said of the huge legal venues. “We work hard to convince everybody involved that this is a courtroom and not a ballroom.

“There are many architectural problems associated with these courtrooms. They’re so large that you can lose facial recognition the farther back you are. So you have to design the room with good sight lines, and then incorporate things such as large video screens to allow close-ups of the judge and any witnesses. But in the end, it truly will be a place where justice is going to happen.”

Richards disagrees. Given the length of the trial, the cost, the precarious state of their homes and their declining value, she said there will never be any justice in the Big Rock Mesa trial.

“When you’re sitting in a house that’s filled with cracks, and it’s no longer worth anything, and there are attorneys who will be working for years at $200 an hour, where is the justice?” Richards said. “We’ve been told that the hillside has stabilized, but we haven’t had a wet winter in years. If we have another big rain, (our house is) probably done for. Then where will we be?”

PREPARING FOR A MEGA-TRIAL The anticipated start of the Big Rock Mesa landslide case involving about 250 Malibu homeowners has attracted attention because of its size. Because 275 lawyers will be involved, architect Michael B. Ross is designing a courtroom three times the size of the largest courtroom in the county, a project that will cost $1 million. It will be filled with cameras, video screens and TV monitors. It will resemble another Ross design for an Arizona courtroom built to handle a Washington State utilites case. The 36 jurors will be equipped with stereo headphones; objections will be shown as lights on an electronic panel in front of the judge.


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