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Caltrans may have to pay in fatal '03 debris flow

Jurors find the agency, which maintained a road above a camp, partly responsible.

October 15, 2010|By Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times

Caltrans could have to pay between $1 million and $4 million to a church whose San Bernardino Mountains retreat was buried by a catastrophic debris flow after jurors found the agency partly responsible for the 2003 disaster that killed 14 people.

Jurors decided last week that Caltrans, which built and maintained a highway above St. Sophia Camp and Retreat Center, was 31% responsible for the massive Christmas Day slide. Rains sent mud, boulders and trees rushing down Waterman Canyon just two months after a major wildfire, leaving families gathered at the camp for a holiday party little opportunity to escape.

Legal experts called the verdict a rare example of a public agency being held liable for a basic government function like road maintenance.

Family members of the victims sued St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church and Foundation after the slide. The church settled the lawsuit in 2008 for $13 million.

The church then sued the California Department of Transportation, seeking reimbursement for part of that settlement. Attorneys argued that the construction and maintenance of California 18 created an unnatural diversion of water and debris that made the flow much worse than it would have otherwise been.

Caltrans attorney Ruth Yeager said the tragedy was a natural disaster attributable only to the camp's location at the bottom of a burned-out canyon.

No evidence ties damage and casualties at the camp to the highway above, she said.

"They were simply part of the same watershed," she said. "This watershed produces debris flows without State Route 18 in the picture."

Attorneys for the church argued that the highway directed runoff onto steep, loose and unreinforced slopes, intensifying the flow and sending it directly toward the camp.

"Caltrans designed and maintained their highway … in a way that they knew — or should have known — would cause big trouble for people downstream," said St. Sophia attorney David Ringwood.

The jury last week determined the highway, built in 1928, was in dangerous condition at the time of the mudslide and a "substantial factor" in causing harm to the victims.

In a second verdict Wednesday, jurors decided the victims' families suffered $3.2 million in economic damages.

What remains to be decided by San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Brian McCarville is whether Caltrans will have to reimburse the church 31% of the economic damages or pay its share of the full $13-million settlement.

A hearing is scheduled for next month.

Caltrans plans to file motions disputing the percentage of liability and calling for a new trial, Yeager said.

Family members of the victims killed in the mudslide, including camp caretaker Jorge Monzon and several families he had invited to the celebration that day, did not name Caltrans in the suit they filed against St.Sophia in 2004.

"They felt very strongly the church was responsible" because church officials did not prepare, alert and evacuate the victims, said attorney Wayne McClean, who represented the families of three victims.

It is very difficult to sue government agencies that provide basic services such as roads and bridges because of legal barriers that shield taxpayers from liability in all but the most outrageously negligent cases, according to legal experts.

"The surprising thing is that the judge let the claims go forward against a state agency at all," said Elizabeth Mann, a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has tried similar cases but was not involved in the suit.

McClean said the decision could put the government on notice.

"It does send a message to the state and the public entities that they have to be more diligent in making these roadways and drains safe for us and our families," he said, "because they're the only ones who can do so."

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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