A federal judge has dismissed a $15-million lawsuit filed by the Sinaloa Lake Owners Assn. against six state officials accused of violating the group's civil rights and causing their property values to decline.
The homeowner group filed the suit in 1983, charging the California Division of Safety of Dams director and five state engineers with deliberately deceiving them when the officials breached a dam near their homes.
State officials ordered the dam breached after more than a week of heavy rains and two landslides, because of concerns that the dam would break, posing a danger to people and property downstream.
Opening the 30-foot-high earthen dam allowed Sinaloa Lake to drain away, along with the property values of the homes, located near Simi Valley, the association contended in its lawsuit.
Because the state did not notify the homeowners until the day the dam was breached, the group claimed it did not have ample time to obtain a restraining order by proving that no emergency existed.
But Central District Judge Edward Rafeedie ruled this week that James Doody, the state official who ordered the dam opened, was protected by "qualified immunity," a state doctrine that says public officials cannot be sued for acting in a reasonable manner.
The five engineers also were not held liable because they were subordinate to Doody, said Los Angeles attorney Shari Rosenthal, who represented the state.
A 1991 U.S. Supreme Court case set the precedent for allowing a judge to decide without a jury whether a public official should be protected under the doctrine, Rosenthal said.
"Public officials should be able to do what they have to do, exercise their discretion, without worrying about being sued," she said.
The only way public officials can be sued for doing their jobs is if they act in an arbitrary or capricious manner, she said.
But the homeowner group is not convinced that justice has been served.
The theory of qualified immunity "has now been stretched to a point which the lake association contends would seem unbelievably absurd to anyone who believes that the function of government is to service the people," group President William F. Hill said in a written statement.