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Hillside Nightmare : Suit Victory Can't Restore Families' Dreams Lost to Mud Slide

June 01, 1986|STEVEN R. CHURM | Times Staff Writert

WHITTIER — It had been raining for six days, and Tom King was worried. A mud slide had threatened a neighbor's house, and reports of still another approaching Pacific storm made sleep difficult in the early morning hours of Feb. 18, 1980.

Shortly after 2 a.m., the rain awakened King. He went to his bedroom window to check the steep slope behind his house and saw water backing up from a clogged drain. He grabbed a raincoat, went downstairs and stepped into the rainy night.

Moments later, the hill gave way.

"I was bending over pulling leaves and mud out of the drain. . . . and before I knew it, a ton of mud poured over the retaining wall," King recalled.

Forty-five minutes later, a second slide crashed down the slope--this time dumping five feet of mud next door in the Hanamures' yard.

No one was hurt when the hillside collapsed behind the two homes in Spyglass Hills, a residential development just north of the city. But the couples say the legal fight and frustration that dragged on for six years following the slides has cost them plenty.

On April 29, a Norwalk Superior Court jury agreed, awarding the two families $559,000 in damages stemming from the mud slides and series of problems with the two homes on Sierra Sky Drive.

Previous Collapse Undisclosed

Following a two-month trial, the jury ruled that the developers, Baldwin Co. and First Nationwide Savings, knew that the hillside had collapsed before but failed to disclose that when the couples purchased the properties six months apart in 1978.

The jurors said the houses were defective because the lots had been improperly graded and prepared for construction. As a result, both houses have been slowly slipping off their foundations, causing them to crack and buckle. Floors are not level and doors do not close. Cracks crisscross some walls like veins in a hand. In the Kings' home, a two-inch-wide crack runs from the back patio through the kitchen to the living room.

"Nice decorator touch," a sarcastic King said as he pointed out the kitchen crack.

Both couples contend they specifically asked about the stability of the 135-foot slope behind the houses before buying. Both are two-story, wood-frame homes. The Kings paid $115,000, while the Hanamures paid $135,000 because their lot is bigger.

Pictures Make Liar of Sales Agent

"The sales agent told us the hill hadn't moved in 20,000 years," said King, a Los Angeles police detective. "Yet their own geologist has pictures of a slide that occurred just the winter before."

Attorney John L. Mallon, who represented the Baldwin Co., said that sales agents "were unaware of the earlier slides," and therefore did not mislead the Kings and Hanamures.

And he said the February, 1980, slide was an "act of God," referring to the unusually heavy rains that soaked Southern California for nearly week. In a seven-day period, nearly 12 inches of rain fell, with property damage from flooding and mud slides in the region exceeding $120 million.

"Sure there was a slide," Mallon said, referring to the slope behind the Kings and Hanamures. "But there was no loss of life, no injury, no mud flow into the homes. . . . Frankly, people assume a certain risk when they decide to live in the foothills. It's just

a fact of life in Southern California."

Mallon concedes that the Kings' and Hanamures' lots were not properly graded or packed to support the weight of the homes once constructed, thus the problem of slippage.

But he said that Baldwin was not the original developer, and therefore had nothing to do with the configurations or conditions of lots.

First Nationwide Savings bought the 500-unit tract in the mid 1970s at Baldwin's urging after several other builders had been unable to muster the finances to complete the project. Even though First Nationwide owned the land, Baldwin built the homes and the jury felt the two companies were co-developers and should be equally liable for damages, Mallon said.

Attempts to Stabilize Hill

At first, the two couples tried to get the Spyglass Homeowners Assn. and the county to stabilize the hillside, but in each case the buck was passed to Baldwin, said the couples' lawyer, Robert H. Dewberry of Whittier.

The Kings were awarded $206,000 and the Hanamures $203,000 by the jury, based on the current market value of the homes with improvements. In addition, each couple received $75,000 for emotional distress.

The Kings' insurance company also came through for the couple during the legal battle, paying them $165,000 for damages to their home, $90,000 of which went to pay off the mortgage. The couple had to pay almost $40,000 in income taxes on the insurance money, said King.

The Hanamures have a similar claim pending against their insurance company.

While pleased with the jury's verdict, King said close to half the money--about $225,000--will go to attorneys and soil specialists the couples hired to fight their case.

House 'Not Worth a Nickel'

In the end, we got full title "to a house that isn't worth a nickel," he said.

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