Victims of 1995 Flood Win Lawsuit
A jury Friday found Santa Cruz and Monterey counties and the California Department of Transportation responsible for failing to maintain the Pajaro River during floods that ravaged the state three years ago.
About 250 people sued after 1995 floods covered their floors and farmland in mud.
“This case basically brought together farmers, farm workers, shopkeepers and large businesses,” plaintiffs’ attorney Randy Gimple said. “They all came together to let Monterey County know that they expect their government to protect them and let Santa Cruz County know that you just can’t maintain half of a flood control zone.”
Monetary damages were to be awarded at separate trials.
The state was assaulted by a series of storms in March 1995, when the normally tranquil rivers turned into a muddy torrent. The Pajaro, which forms much of the border of Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, broke its levees, submerging 2,500 acres of farmland and the farm community of Pajaro, next to Watsonville.
Since the damage, both rivers have undergone flood control work. Sandbars and vegetation, partially blamed for the flooding, were removed from the Pajaro River.
In closing arguments to jurors Wednesday, Santa Cruz County attorney Gary Lepper said the Pajaro River Flood Project was designed to carry 19,000 cubic feet of water per second, well below the 21,300 cubic feet that roared through the channel the night of the flood.
County attorneys said that officials had done all they could to maintain the river but were hampered by the budget-shrinking passage of Proposition 13 and a changing political climate that favored environmental concerns over habitat destruction.
“We had no sympathy vote,” Lepper said after the verdict. “You have 225 ordinary citizens, they’ve been flooded out and the jury has a choice of saying, ‘Sorry but you have to bear your own damages’ or they can say, ‘We’re going to impose them on the government.’ Under those circumstances, we knew we had an upstream battle.”
But plaintiffs’ attorneys said the counties made a solemn promise in 1944 when they agreed to maintain the levees the Army Corps of Engineers built to control the waters of the Pajaro River. They broke that promise, Gimple said, by agreeing to the Department of Fish and Game’s request to protect the river’s riparian habitat.
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