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Owners of 21 Houses Sue Builder, Allege Damage From Soil

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The owners of 21 houses in a Griffin Homes project in Palmdale sued the Calabasas-based builder Monday for at least $10.5 million, alleging their houses are falling apart because they were built on unstable soil.

The lawsuit, filed in Van Nuys Superior Court, is at least the second of its kind lodged against the builder of an Antelope Valley tract in the past two months. In addition, Griffin Homes is already fighting a separate but similar lawsuit over a large condominium project it built in Thousand Oaks.

The Palmdale lawsuit seeks at least $500,000 in damages per house, accusing Griffin of negligence and fraud. The lawsuit says the developer knew of soil problems in its Santa Fe tract--about 140 houses sold starting in 1986--but “failed and refused to disclose” that information to buyers. The construction firm has denied the charge in the past.

“You’re talking about earth movement and distress that is apparent on a very large scale,” said Joseph Liebman, the Westwood attorney representing the homeowners. He said some of his clients’ houses have severely cracked walls and foundations, while others thus far have only minor damage.

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Griffin Homes executives have acknowledged that portions of the tract were built above underground layers of clay that expand when wet, disrupting the soil surface. Griffin had blamed its pre-construction soils consulting firm, which has since gone out of business, for not identifying the clay.

A spokeswoman for the construction company also has said that the unstable soil affects only a small portion of the tract, about 15 to 18 houses. But Liebman said he has obtained a copy of a warning to Griffin from one of its own consultants that the so-called expansive soil lies beneath houses throughout the tract.

Jeffrey D. Masters, a Century City attorney hired by Griffin, said he was surprised by the lawsuit because Griffin continues to negotiate with one group of owners to buy back their damaged houses. Masters said the lawsuit appeared to come from an entirely different group of owners, who the company did not realize were unhappy with their houses.

Last month, the owners of seven houses in the Narcissa View Estates tract near Palmdale sued their builder, a subsidiary of Watt Industries, for $5 million because of sinking soil. And, Griffin is now fighting a similar lawsuit over its 648-unit Hidden Canyon project in Thousand Oaks.

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