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Ventura County, Ranch Sued Over Slide That Killed 10

Families of the victims contend government actions led to the La Conchita disaster.

January 28, 2006|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Families of the 10 La Conchita residents who died in a mudslide last year filed wrongful-death suits this week against Ventura County and a firm that owns a ranch atop the bluffs that loom over the seaside community.

Lawsuits also were filed on behalf of eight people who were injured and the owners of 16 homes that were destroyed in the horrific slide last January, according to Los Angeles attorney Anthony Murray, who is representing the plaintiffs.

The suits seek unspecified damages.

Filed Thursday and Friday in Ventura County Superior Court, the suits allege that a wall built by the county on the steep hillside channeled the flow of mud into the houses below. The 18-foot-high wall, which was destroyed in the slide, was built after a 1995 mudslide to trap rocks and debris, county officials have said.

The suits also say that residents were "lulled into a false sense of security" by a number of measures the county took after the 1995 slide, including monitoring the movement of earth on the hillside. Sometime before the fatal slide, the county discontinued the monitoring and failed to let residents know, the suits allege.

Assistant County Counsel Alberto Boada denied the allegations.

The wall did not determine the slide's direction, and the monitors could not have detected relevant movements because they were deeper than the dirt that gave way, he said.

"If there was a dangerous condition, it's that residents chose to live under an unstable hillside and chose to remain there after two weeks of record-setting rainfall," he said.

The suits contend that the La Conchita Ranch Co. "failed to take reasonable or effective remedial measures" to stabilize the hillside, which it owns. The ranch grows nearly 700 acres of avocado and citrus trees in its hilltop orchards.

Frank T. Sabaitis, a Los Angeles attorney representing the company, said the suit was overly vague.

"There's no mention of any particular activity that the ranch did or didn't do," he said. "It's a case of file a complaint and then try to figure out why."

After the 1995 slide, La Conchita residents charged in a lawsuit that excessive irrigation by the ranch had weakened the hillside. A judge rejected that claim. An earlier lawsuit related to the slide was settled out of court.

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