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Trial Begins in First of 230 Slide Suits

June 13, 1985|LYNDON STAMBLER | Times Staff Writer

Nearly 22 months after a massive landslide in Malibu's Big Rock Mesa, the first of 230 lawsuits filed against county and state agencies has come to trial before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jack T. Ryburn.

The first suit, which may serve as a test case for the others, involves the home of Margaret and August Hansch, which was completed in 1980 and destroyed in the September, 1983, slide. The Hansches are seeking $2.5 million for the value of their home, plus attorney fees and damages for emotional distress.

Along with other homeowners, the Hansches contend that the slide was caused by the County of Los Angeles, the Flood Control District, county Waterworks District 29 and the state Department of Transportation.

As many as 300 homes were threatened by the slide, which involved 150 to 250 acres. Thirty homes were condemned. The rest are habitable, but property values have plummeted, according to homeowners' attorneys. Some lawyers estimate that the total liability in the case could exceed $100 million in property damage.

The Hansch case may have significance beyond itself. "It's the largest aggregate damage claim associated with a landslide that I'm aware of," said Kenneth R. Chiate, a lawyer who represents about 160 homeowners.

Hansch lawyer Richard Norton estimated that the trial could last more than 40 days. As he began his 2 1/2-hour opening statement Tuesday, Norton said that "30 years worth of history" of the mesa will be presented.

The amount of information is nearly as massive as the landslide. The lawyers have collected 80,000 pages of documents dating back to the construction of Pacific Coast Highway in 1921. They have taken 130 days of depositions.

The documents deal with "virtually all aspects of the development of the mesa, the residential development of the mesa . . . all leading up to 1983 when the large landslide occurred," said William Vaughn, an attorney with the firm of O'Melveny & Myers retained by the county.

During the past year, there has been a great deal of maneuvering in court. In January, the lawyers for all parties decided they needed to hire two retired judges to serve as referees over the gathering of information and filing of legal motions.

After the Hansch case is decided, the public agencies may press forward with countersuits filed against more than 300 past and present homeowners, developers and architects, claiming they are responsible for the slide.

Supervisor Deane Dana said he hopes the case won't drag on. "We don't intend to let it go that long. Our hope is that it would be settled rather quickly," he said.

Meanwhile, legal costs are mounting. The parties have had to pay for the referees, the depositions, studies by geologists and engineers and reproduction of documents. In December, the county hired O'Melveny & Myers, and legal fees have reached $1 million, according to Senior Deputy County Counsel John Krattli.

The Hansch trial will be split into two phases. The first phase, to be decided by Ryburn, will focus on whether public works by the agencies were a substantial cause of the slide. The second phase, which will be decided by a jury, will deal with the Hansches' emotional distress claims.

Both sides generally agree that a significant cause of the slide was the rising level of ground water which triggered movement in the mesa. Much of the water was from septic tanks and seepage pits that allow waste water to filter into the ground rather then into sewer systems.

On Tuesday, Norton claimed in an opening argument that the agencies, by "projects, acts or omissions," caused the landslide. Lawyers representing the agencies have said that the government did not cause the slide.

Known Since Early 1960s

Norton said county officials have known since the early 1960s that the mesa was the site of an ancient landslide, but approved residential development with seepage pits for the next 20 years. Norton cited studies and reports reviewed by the county in 1961 and 1962 that mapped the landslide and predicted that increased ground water could trigger movement.

"We believe that what the county did might be likened to a failure to respond to a ticking time bomb," Norton said.

He said that the water district formed by the county in 1959 allowed expansion from 70 homes, which were served by a small company that pumped water from wells, to approximately 300 homes today.

In 1973, Norton said, a county study reported that the water table in the mesa had risen to 200 feet, but the county did not take action to lower the water level. Norton said that four horizontal drains the community was required to maintain for the entire mesa were inadequate to drain the water.

"Instead of solving the ground water problem," Norton said, the county "turned (it) over to the homeowners."

Norton believes that Caltrans is liable for cutting into the base of the mesa to widen Pacific Coast Highway. The cuts "disturbed the equilibrium" of the mesa and caused a shift downward, he said.

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