They were spared severe damage when the landslide struck. Million-dollar houses on Big Rock Mesa toppled around them on that frightening day in 1983, but somehow, the home of Elizabeth and Russell Nichols survived the shifting tons of earth.
The damage to their lives has come since then. The fear of the next slide. The mounting bills from agencies trying to prevent further movement of the earth. The wrangling with attorneys over one of the most complex legal cases in the nation. The years of waiting for a settlement that has never come. And the realization that their dream home, once worth several hundred thousand dollars, may have little or no resale value.
"The slide hasn't upset us as much as all the things that have happened in the past 5 years," said Elizabeth Nichols, who at 72 is 2 years younger than her husband. "After all these years, it has a psychological effect. I never had trouble sleeping before, but I do now. I know it's silly to worry, but in a case like this, you just can't help it."
Today, the worries remain, but the waiting is finally over. The Nicholses are among seven Big Rock homeowners over 70 years old whose case against Los Angeles County and several other government agencies is finally going to trial. Opening arguments began this week in Los Angeles Superior Court.
The trial for the elderly homeowners was separated from the Big Rock mega-trial, involving 250 other homeowners, to spare them several more years of litigation. The decision in their case will have no effect on the massive trial for the remaining Big Rock homeowners.
The complexity and staggering size of the case has overshadowed the plight of many of the elderly plaintiffs. For them, the joy once found in living on the steep hillside above the Pacific Ocean in Malibu has been replaced by the anxiety of being trapped in a lawsuit they may never win.
Attorneys say that even if they get a favorable judgment in the case, they may not receive enough money to cover the huge loss in value of their homes. And with appeals, the suit could drag on for years.
The toll has been heavy. Two of the elderly plaintiffs have died in the last year. One of them was actor-producer John Houseman, whose wife, Joan, is one of the remaining litigants. Homeowner Robert Moses died last summer, but his widow remains involved in the case. In addition, some people believe that the anxiety over the drawn-out legal battle has contributed to some of the residents' ailments.
$300 Million at Stake
"This case represents one of the most difficult parts of the system," said Richard Norton, one of the homeowners' attorneys. "For some of the people, it's been just an overwhelming experience.
"Over the years, I've told my clients what we're doing for them and let them know that we expect to win. But I've also reminded them that they have had the ill fortune to be part of the worst landslide case in the state's history.
"From time to time over the years, some of them have asked for some way to have their case be over. Clearly, we can see from our relationship with them that the case has taken its toll. These people just wanted to be in their homes and not have to worry about them. But that hasn't been the case for 5 years."
The trial for the seven elderly residents is a precursor to the colossal mega-trial for the other Big Rock Mesa homeowners, which is scheduled to begin Feb. 15. That trial, which will be held in the largest courtroom in the United States, is expected to be one of the longest civil trials in the nation.
In both trials, the Big Rock case pits the homeowners and their insurance companies against Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles County Waterworks District No. 29 and the Los Angeles County Flood Control District. In turn, the county and the other agencies have sued the residents, and the homeowners have sued each other in the complex case.
At stake is more than $300 million in claims and counterclaims. The Big Rock trial is expected to be the most expensive in the history of Los Angeles County. Attorneys fees alone are estimated at $100 million. And Los Angeles County has already spent more than $7 million defending the case.
The homeowners are suing the county for approving development of Big Rock Mesa with seepage pits and horizontal drains rather than sewers. They say the county's action contributed to a rise in ground water, which triggered the massive landslide, destroying or damaging about 250 homes.
About 30 homes were condemned by the county as unsafe, and the value of the others, many priced over $1 million, plummeted.
The county says the homeowners are to blame for the slide because they did not drain water from the mesa; that they contributed to the disaster by using septic tanks, showers and toilets; and that they blocked attempts by the county to build a sewer in Malibu.