Lawyers for La Conchita Ranch Co. have taken the offensive in a legal battle over a landslide that destroyed nine La Conchita homes nearly a year ago, filing a complaint alleging that Ventura County and a local water district are partly responsible for the disaster.
The ranch company, which is being sued by scores of La Conchita residents over the March 4, 1995, landslide, charges that the county is culpable because it allowed homes to be built against the bluff despite the farming going on above.
The homeowners contend that over-irrigation of the ranch's orchards caused the hill to become unstable and fall.
Lawyers for the ranch said in their complaint that Ventura County "knew or should have known that [residential] zoning should not have been permitted."
The Casitas Municipal Water District was also named as a cross-defendant, the allegation being that a mile-long water line owned by the district contributed to saturating the hillside and contributing to the slide.
Attorneys for both public agencies said Thursday that there is no legal precedent for holding either of them responsible for slide damage.
Assistant County Counsel Dennis Slivinski said the county cannot be held liable for allowing construction of homes at the base of the hillside.
"The same principle applies to earthquakes," he said. "No one is suggesting that the county of Los Angeles is responsible for damages from the Northridge earthquake.
"La Conchita Ranch is trying to extend the law. They're certainly entitled to do that, but we will resist this claim."
Robert M. Cohen, an attorney representing the Casitas Municipal Water District, said the cross-complaint is simply an attempt by La Conchita Ranch lawyers to minimize their clients' damages.
"They need other targets," he said. "Basically, that [cross-complaint] is just an economic decision on their part."
Cohen said that maintenance crews regularly check the pipelines for leaks, and that if water had leaked from the main as alleged in the cross-complaint, workers would have discovered it long before a slide.
It had rained for weeks before the hill collapsed one year ago next week.
The ranch's complaints, filed last week in Ventura County Superior Court, were added onto the lawsuit filed last year by La Conchita residents.
A case management conference regarding the lawsuit is scheduled in Superior Court on March 27.