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Firm to settle suit over slide

La Conchita Ranch Co. agrees to turn over land and assets in a case stemming from a fatal mudslide in 2005.

September 09, 2008|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Three years after a devastating landslide killed 10 people in Ventura County, the owners of an avocado ranch above the coastal hamlet agreed Monday to turn over all 700 acres of their land and other assets to settle a lawsuit.

The move effectively puts La Conchita Ranch Co. out of business after more than three decades. It will also put the ranch, and all of its equipment, up for sale, said Anthony Murray, the lead attorney for 36 plaintiffs.

Together with the $5-million limits of the company's two insurance policies, he said, the settlement could bring tens of millions of dollars to residents who lost loved ones or suffered property damage as a result of the massive landslide, which occurred during heavy rains in January 2005.

"The defendants essentially conceded everything," said Murray, a partner at the Loeb & Loeb law firm in Los Angeles. "We're very happy that the plaintiffs are getting everything the defendants have."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 10, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
La Conchita: An article in Monday's California section about the settlement of a lawsuit stemming from the fatal mudslide in La Conchita in 2005 identified Richard Morton as an attorney for the plaintiffs. He represents the defendants.

Until Jan. 10, 2005, La Conchita was a place where working people could find a little slice of coastal paradise -- a haven for surfers, fishermen, construction workers, retirees and assorted oddballs.

Then a strong Pacific storm unleashed drenching rain.

When the hillside suddenly gave way, 400,000 tons of mud slid down its face in eight seconds. Three young girls and their mother were among those killed in the collapse, which devastated the small, close-knit community. Several homes were completely buried and others were damaged.

Monday's agreement follows an Aug. 19 jury verdict that found La Conchita Ranch Co. was 50% negligent in the landslide because it didn't provide for adequate drainage of its orchards during torrential rains that swept over Southern California. Jurors also decided that the ranch should have provided some type of warning system.

Plaintiffs were preparing for a second phase to determine damages when the limited partnership that owns the ranch agreed instead to the settlement, Murray said. Ventura County Superior Court Judge Vince O'Neill on Monday assigned a receiver to take control of about 700 acres of avocados and lemons, as well as all of the ranch's equipment, vehicles, bank accounts and other property.

The ranch has been tending orchards on the Ventura County bluff since the mid-'70s, said Richard Morton, an attorney for the plaintiffs. Ranch partners agreed to the settlement, he said, to avoid the expense of another trial phase: "It was something they had to make a decision on,' " he said.

La Conchita Ranch is owned by a corporation and operated by a limited partnership. The partners "did not depend on the ranch for all of their income," Morton said.

The jury exonerated ranch manager David Orr of any negligence.

The plaintiffs also sued Ventura County, arguing that it was partially responsible for the damages because it had installed a retaining wall at the base of the mountain after a smaller landslide a decade earlier. But the county was dismissed from the lawsuit, Murray said. He said plaintiffs intend to appeal that decision.

After the 1995 landslide buried or damaged seven homes, the county designated La Conchita a "geological hazard area" and installed signs warning people to "enter at your own risk." No one was hurt in the earlier collapse.

On Jan. 10, 2005, Mechelle Wallet, 37, and her three daughters, Hannah, 10, Raven, 6, and Paloma, 2, decided to hunker down through the storm at the home of a friend, Charlie Womack. They were killed in the slide. The girls' father, Jimmie, was at the store getting ice cream. He survived.

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catherine.saillant @latimes.com

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