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Family sues city, state over Encinitas bluff collapse that killed three

Pat Davis, Curtis Clave and Daniel Cox
Curtis Clave, center, husband of Anne Davis Clave, a victim of the Encinitas bluff collapse, speaks to the media outside the Vista Courthouse Wednesday.
(Jarrod Valliere / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The family of three women killed when a bluff collapsed at an Encinitas beach last year filed a wrongful death lawsuit Wednesday naming the city, the state and entities tied to the condo complex land overlooking the state beach where the sandstone slid.

The suit alleges negligence and dangerous conditions at the property where the Aug. 2, 2019 collapse happened, along a stretch of bluff at Grandview Beach, at the bottom of a steep set of stairs.

At a news conference outside the Vista courthouse Wednesday, attorney Deborah Chang, who represents the families, called the weakened cliff “a ticking time bomb.”

“It wasn’t a question [of] if something was going to happen, but when,” Chang said. “And that time bomb is still ticking today.”

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She and the families argue that the danger remains. They showed a picture of several sunbathers and beach towels at the base of the cliffs, the exact site of the collapse. The photo was taken late last month.

The named defendants in the suit, filed in the Vista branch of San Diego Superior Court, are the California Department of Parks and Recreation, which owns the land, and the city of Encinitas, which manages it.

Defendants also include Leucadia Seabluffe Village Community Assn., the homeowners association managing condos at the top of the cliff, and Seabreeze Management Co., which handles the property management.

Seabreeze Chief Executive Isaiah Henry said Wednesday afternoon that the company “offers its deepest sympathies to the families of the deceased for their loss.” He declined further comment.

A statement from the homeowners association said, in part, that it it learned of the lawsuit through news reports. “We are working with our counsel to understand the lawsuit, and how it claims we are involved in this tragic event,” the statement said.

State parks officials and the city of Encinitas both declined to comment.

The deaths prompted proposed state legislation that, had it passed, would have required the California Coastal Commission to approve projects designed to protect against coastal erosion in Orange and San Diego counties.

Earlier this year, state Sen. Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) introduced SB 1090, but the bill was sidelined by COVID-19 concerns. She said she plans to reintroduce it next year.

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“It is a significant, significant public safety issue when you see what is going on along our bluffs,” she said.

Communities along the coast have long dealt with crumbling cliffs. Debate rages on how best to address them, from doing nothing to slowing the erosion by replenishing sand to building seawalls.

Just this year, erosion has caused rock slides and cliff collapses near train tracks atop the cliffs in Del Mar. A battle over seawall permits in neighboring Solana Beach landed in the state’s highest court. Over the past 25 years, the region has seen three other deadly rock falls on the beaches.

The families of the women who died last year said they want action taken to prevent further deaths. Two of the widowers said they are concerned that people continue to sunbathe at the exact site of the deadly fall.

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“I have come to the conclusion that the only way those who can make the changes — the city and the state — are going to listen to us is through legislative changes and legal action,” said Dr. Pat Davis, whose wife, Julie, died.

The rock slide remains among the deadliest cliff collapses in the county in recent memory. Killed were Anne Davis Clave, 35, her mother Julie Davis, 65, both of Encinitas. Also killed was Davis’ sister Elizabeth Charles, 62, of San Francisco.

The plaintiffs are Clave’s husband and their young children, Davis’ husband and their surviving adult children, and Charles’ husband and their teenage children. All three men three choked up as they spoke at the news conference.

“The early weeks were an absolute blur, and it slowly but surely evolved into a very harsh reality that we have lost three of the most absolutely beautiful, caring, strong, passionate women. It’s incredibly unfair,” said Curtis Clave, Anne’s husband.

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The Encinitas collapse happened near a popular surf spot with a narrow beach between the water and the sandstone cliffs. Just north of the stairs leading to the sand, a roughly 30-foot-wide chunk of the cliff slipped away.

The suit alleges that “decades of conflict between the competing interests” — the state, cities, property owners and others — led to dysfunction that created “an unnatural, unstable and unsafe urbanized cliff” above the narrow beach.

The suit argues that a seawall by the long stairway to the beach stopped erosion around the stairs but weakened the bluff at the ends of the wall.

“This was not an unknown, natural occurrence,” attorney Bibi Fell said. “It was decades in the making, from what is not natural anymore, but an urbanized cliff.”

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The suit also points to the presence of non-native ice plant, a water-heavy vegetation said to accelerate erosion, and the thirsty but non-native palms trees at the top of the stairs to the beach.

The attorneys said that their research of decades of documents between the city and the state indicates that both entities were aware of the danger at the spot.

The suit also alleges that the lifeguard on duty directed the family to sit where they did that day.

It asks for financial damages but does not specify an amount.

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Figueroa writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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