Norton, of Fadem, Berger & Norton, and Ken Chiate of Lillick, McHose & Charles, the homeowners' lead attorneys, have likened the county's suit to charging residents with causing the landslide by using their homes in a "normal" fashion. However, David Casselman, one of the county's attorneys, said the homeowners were aware of the ground-water problem and basically ignored it.
"The heart of our defense is that the Malibu homeowners have failed to do that which they said they would do," Casselman told Superior Court Judge Henry P. Nelson last Tuesday. "Our case centers on the basis that the homeowners knew that they had to dewater and had a company in place to do just that." But the drainage firm, the Malibu Mutual Drainage Co., was dissolved by corporate officers, some of them Big Rock homeowners.
Norton, Chiate, Casselman and several other attorneys spent most of last week arguing over more than 50 pretrial motions presented to Nelson, who will preside in the case involving the people who are over 70. The trial is expected to last between 2 and 3 months, with more than 75 witnesses scheduled to testify.
Elizabeth Nichols is one of them. If asked, she can provide a short history of the area. She and her husband have lived in their home on Big Rock for 34 years, long before it became a haven for movie stars and was filled with huge private estates.
"The funny thing about Big Rock is that now everything revolves around how there's too much water in the ground," she said. "But when we first moved in, the problem was we didn't have enough water. The water kept running out, so we finally had to have it trucked in.
"Today I'm told that we're pumping more water out of the hill than we're putting in. But we're spending a lot of money doing it."
Because of the county's "dewatering" program, Nichols believes that even if the homeowners win a settlement against the county agencies, they'll end up paying to try to solve the landslide problem. If a sewer proposal in Malibu is approved by the county, the hillside residents will be assessed an unknown amount to hook into the system. And a favorable judgment for the residents would do little to change the monetary worth of their homes.
"Any money that we ever get will probably go right back to the county," she said. "At this point, I'm glad to have any trial going at all. It would just be nice to have something settled, once and for all.
"I would like to get some money out of the case, but I don't have any great hopes that that will happen anymore."
For the Nicholses, about the only silver lining is that they are still able to live in their house, which survived with a cracked garage roof and some other minor damage. Elizabeth Nichols said that "nobody in their right mind would pay what it was once worth, and we might not be able to sell it at all." But they can still live there.
"It's still a nice place to live," she said, "if you're not scared of the next landslide."