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Couple Awarded $1.5 Million to End Landslide Lawsuit

February 25, 1988|GERALD FARIS | Times Staff Writer

The last plaintiffs in the Flying Triangle landslide suit were awarded $1.5 million on Wednesday by a Torrance Superior Court jury, concluding the longest case in the court's history.

Larry and Corinne David, whose home was the last to be affected by the slowly moving landslide in the hillside Flying Triangle section of Rolling Hills, were given $950,000 for damages to their home, $25,000 each for emotional distress and $500,000 in punitive damages.

The awards were assessed against California Water Service Co., which the jury--in the yearlong liability phase of the case--found to be partially responsible for the landslide because of breaks in waterlines that contributed to land movement.

Charles Bennett, the water company attorney who argued that punitive damages were unwarranted, said the company may appeal the judgment.

The Davids could not be reached for comment after the verdict, but in testimony, Larry David said the Ranchero Road house he purchased in 1976 as a "dream home" has been turned into "a hell" by the landslide.

The plaintiffs had sued five defendants over a period of years and the suits were consolidated. The city and Los Angeles County settled before the trial, which began in January, 1987. Three defendants went to court--the Rolling Hills Community Assn., the water company and Lockwood-Singh, the engineering firm that concluded in the late 1960s that home-building in the Flying Triangle was safe.

$18.2 Million Paid

The final verdict brings to $18.2 million the amount paid by the defendants to the owners and former owners of 30 Flying Triangle properties affected by the landslide.

Most of the plaintiffs settled during the liability phase of the trial, which ended Jan. 6, when the jury found that the water company and the community association, which maintains roads and other common areas in the city, contributed to the slide. Other plaintiffs settled before the damage phase began last week.

The Davids were able to settle with the association but not the water company and they were the only parties in the damage phase of the trial.

During the trial, the community association and the water company argued that excessive rainfall in the late 1970s saturated the ground and triggered an ancient landslide.

Property owners, on the other hand, contended that the association used Flying Triangle canyons as a drainage system, eroding canyon walls that supported the land. They also asserted that numerous leaks in water lines--as well as a break in a major water main--helped keep the land moving after the slide began.

According to Bennett, the owners and former owners--excluding the Davids--received $6 million from the water company. They all got $5.4 million from the association.

During the trial, a reported $900,000 settlement was made with Lockwood-Singh.

Before the case went to court, the city settled for $1.5 million and the county for $2.9 million. The county settlement also included below-market loans up to $5.5 million to help owners who want to buy other homes.

While the Superior Court case involved owners of 22 Flying Triangle properties, the settlements also were paid to eight other property owners who filed suits that were not a part of the larger case.

'A Sense of Horror'

In final arguments to the jury, the Davids' attorney, Major Langer, who asked for $5.1 million for his clients, said the couple lived with the fear that "their home would move. . . It has to be a sense of horror."

Langer asserted that punitive damages should be levied because the water company--in failing to move lines above ground for several months despite advice by the county geologist to do so--acted in "conscious disregard of the safety of others."

Bennett argued that the company did not deserve punishment.

"There is evidence the company tried to do what was right at the time," he told the jury. "Time proved them wrong and you concluded they were negligent."

Bennett said there were conflicting expert opinions at the time about how the landslide was moving.

'Ample Warning'

Jury foreman Chuck Arrasmith said the jury unanimously decided that punitive damages were warranted.

"We believe the water company was given ample warning that their lines were a potential cause for acceleration or damage to the area," he said. "They were given time to abate that and they chose not to."

He said the hardest decision was the $950,000 property damage award. "All of us had a different figure," he said, and the vote for the final number on the morning of the verdict was 11-1. Appraisers called by both sides in the trial differed greatly on the value of the house.

Arrasmith said the jury "never concluded as to exactly when or why" the landslide started, although it is traced to a small slide in 1980.

While property owners reserved their harshest words for the association--which they accused of turning its back on their problems--Arrasmith said the water company was a greater contributor to the slide because it had "direct control" of the water pipes that broke, eroding Klondike Canyon and sending water down to the slide mass.

Shunned Leadership Role

He said the jury faulted the association "for not taking a leadership role" in fighting the slide and for not doing something about its Crest Road drain that sent water into the canyon.

"It did ask the water company to move its line above ground, but it never did a study on the amount of water in the Crest drain," he said.

However, Arrasmith said the root of the landslide problem lay with the Lockwood-Singh study, which led to a lifting of a building moratorium in the late 1960s.

"In the liability phase, it was agreed by all of the geologists that the ground was unstable," he said. "Lockwood-Singh was in error."

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