ROLLING HILLS — They stood on the grassy bluff on the eastern side of Klondike Canyon, looking at open, green land, tree-sheltered homes, the broken foundations where some homes used to stand, and the hazy midafternoon sparkle of the Pacific Ocean.
Some took notes. "This gives you an overall look at the entire area," said Torrance Superior Court Judge Frank Baffa, wearing blue jeans and a sheepskin coat and pointing across the canyon with a walking stick.
What they were viewing was the Flying Triangle, the hilly southern extremity of the city where the ocean views are spectacular, but where a landslide that started in 1980 has expanded and accelerated, destroying six expensive homes and threatening many others.
And far from being casual tourists in an enclave of opulent living, most of the group, including aerospace workers, a vocational nurse, letter carriers and a Torrance city employee, were jurors who must decide if the landslide was the result of human error or an act of nature.
Along with a bevy of attorneys and court officials, the eight-man, four-woman jury and six alternates spent a few hours seeing places and things they had heard about during three days of opening arguments in Baffa's Torrance courtroom, where 19 owners of 21 Flying Triangle properties are seeking $31 million in damages in a trial that is expected to last two to three months.
The owners have named the Rolling Hills Community Assn., which maintains roads and some drainage systems in the gated, private city; California Water Service, a privately owned utility, and Lockwood-Singh Associates, an engineering company that investigated prospective home sites in the late 1960s and concluded that development was safe, even though the Flying Triangle had been identified as an ancient slide area.
(The city of Rolling Hills and Los Angeles County were dropped from the lawsuit after they agreed to cash settlements totaling more than $4 million. One owner refused to settle with the county and that case will be tried after the larger trial, in which he also is a plaintiff, has ended.)
On the tour, the group saw several drains on Crest Road and Portuguese Bend Road, along with their outflows into Klondike and Paintbrush canyons, which attorneys for the owners argue are routes the water took into the canyons, producing erosion that caused the slide. And they saw a 20-foot-wide chasm created by land sliding into Klondike, which one attorney said demonstrates the power of the slide.
Battle of Experts
In opening arguments in the case--expected to be a battle of expert witnesses on geology, soils and water--attorneys for the property owners called the landslide a creation of drainage systems and water leaks that were the responsibility of the association and the water company.
"A change in drainage patterns through development caused the first small slide and through inaction and neglect of the association, if not association indifference, it grew to its present proportion," said Major Langer, a Flying Triangle resident who is principal attorney for the property owners and also a plaintiff in the case. He said water was allowed to flow from different parts of the city to the canyons, which were used as a drainage system.
The water flowing into Klondike Canyon "eroded the natural buttress in the canyon wall . . . 15 to 20 feet so it could not support the land," Langer asserted. He said that, starting in the early 1970s, increasing amounts of water were permitted to flow into Klondike from a Crest Road drain just above the Flying Triangle.
Langer contended that a 1972 break in a water company pipe spilled "500,000 to 3 million gallons of water" into the canyon, causing substantial erosion.
Effects Not Recognized
"The effects were not recognized until the major (land) movement began," he said.
Both Langer and David Rudy, who represents another property owner, fault the water company for not putting lines above ground soon enough after the slide began, thus permitting numerous water leaks that helped lubricate a slick underground slide plane and keep the land mass moving.
Ted Armbruster, attorney for the association, rejected the "uncaring" label put on the association by attorneys for the property owners. He told the court that the organization--which is made up of all property owners in the city--spends "20% of its budget" keeping Portuguese Bend Road repaired and open through the slide area and has retained geologists to give advice on how to deal with the slide.
He asserted that the Crest drain carries water only "10 to 15 days" days a year and "does not lubricate the slide plane." He said that geologists hired a few years ago by the association concluded that there was no connection between the drain and the slide. "The slide plane is above the level of the water flow," he said.
Armbruster said that between 1976 and 1980, the "heaviest rain in the history of this area came down," saturating the land and causing landslides all over California.