A couple whose home was destroyed in the massive 1983 landslide at Malibu's Big Rock Mesa will begin a jury trial next week to determine how much Los Angeles County must pay in damages in the first of 230 lawsuits filed by homeowners.
Estimates of the total amount of damages that could be assessed for all of the homes range from $100 million to $500 million.
Margaret and August Hansch, who built their house in 1980, are seeking $2.3 million for property damage, plus an unspecified amount for emotional distress and attorney fees. The second phase of the trial to determine the amount of damages could take two to four weeks, according to attorneys.
On Oct. 4, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jack T. Ryburn ruled, after a 3 1/2-month trial, that the county is liable for the damages to the Hansch home caused by the landslide.
Ryburn ruled that the county "participated in the planning and approved the development of Big Rock Mesa, utilizing seepage pits and horizontal drains which contributed to higher ground water which was a substantial cause of damage to plaintiffs' property."
The slide involved 150 to 250 acres. Thirty homes were condemned. The rest are habitable, but property values have plunged.
The 230 homeowners originally filed lawsuits against the county, the Flood Control District, the state Department of Transportation and Waterworks District 29. In the Hansch case, Ryburn dismissed all defendants except the county.
Attorney Richard Norton, who represents the Hansches and 50 other homeowners, said that in the second phase of the trial, the jury will be presented with two independent appraisals of the Hansch house. After the value of the house is set, Ryburn will decide on attorney fees.
Lack of Warning
The main issue in the emotional distress claim, Norton said, is that the county failed to warn the homeowners of the danger. Norton said that the county conducted studies in 1980 and 1981 that revealed the mesa was moving, but "withheld" the information. Norton also plans to introduce a warning letter to homeowners that was drafted by the county two years before the slide, but was not sent.
Attorney William Vaughn, who represents the county in the case, said that there is a disagreement about whether the next phase of the trial should include the emotional distress issue.
"We think that there was no failure to warn and also there was no duty to warn," Vaughn said, adding that the warning letter was not sent to the homeowners because the survey on which it was based was "inaccurate."
As the complex case moves to the damages phase, there is also confusion about the impact of Ryburn's Oct. 4 ruling on the other cases. Lawyers for the homeowners contend that the county's liability has been established and should not be retried in the 230 other cases.
Kenneth Chiate, an attorney who represents 160 homeowners and who lives in Big Rock, said, "It seems to me that now that we have a ruling, I would be hopeful there would be some effort now to try to resolve the case, so that we don't have to waste taxpayer money to litigate (the same) issues time and again."
But Vaughn took issue with the notion that the Hansch case sets a precedent. "We never thought it was a test case," Vaughn said. "Those are words used by other people."
An appeal in the Hansch case could delay using it as a model for the other 230 cases for more than a year, until a final decision is reached, according to lawyers. The county has not decided yet whether to appeal.
Chiate said that, regardless of the possibility of an appeal, he intends to press forward with cases involving 11 clients, all of whom are over 70 years old and who have a legal right to a trial starting no later than Dec. 17. He said that if the county appeals and does not concede liability, "then it seems to me they are going to have to go to trial."
All 230 cases have been consolidated for pretrial motions before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Maurice Hogan. How all of the cases, including the 11 referred to by Chiate, move through the courts may be determined at an Oct. 18 hearing before Hogan.
Vaughn has filed a motion to consolidate all of the cases into one trial. If his motion is successful, Vaughn said, "we'll have to start from scratch" with a new trial.
Norton said he would prefer to work out a settlement or to begin assessing damages rather than beginning a new trial on who is liable. "We'd be going on forever," Norton said. "The length of that trial could easily be longer than a year."
If the Hansch case is appealed, the homeowners' lawyers may ask the courts to begin assessing the damages in the other cases, Norton said. "We've heard figures of up to $500 million from (county Supervisor) Deane Dana (for the potential damages)," Norton said. "I don't think that's a realistic assessment of the damages. It may be useful to try some damage cases for homes that are not completely destroyed to learn whether they have any remaining value. I don't believe they do."
To Hear Motions