The cause of the catastrophic landslide on Mount Soledad that caused at least $48 million in total damages nearly two years ago was either an act of nature or negligence on the part of the city of San Diego.
Those were the opening arguments laid out Monday by opposing attorneys in San Diego Superior Court in a lawsuit brought jointly by 65 La Jolla homeowners seeking financial redress from the city for damages caused by the Oc. 3, 2007, slide that collapsed Soledad Mountain Road, destroyed three homes and damaged several others. The trial is expected to last for about three weeks.
“If the water gets away, the city must pay,” plaintiff’s attorney Craig McClellan argued. “That’s the law. And isn’t that justice?”
McClellan gave an hour-long presentation detailing the plaintiffs contention that failures in the city’s water utilities and water services system - flooding, roadway damage, shifting, cracking, sink holes, soil movement and water seepage - were constantly reported to the city over time but not appropriately acted upon. Those actions undermined Soledad Mountain Road, causing the slide and resultant property damage, they claim.
The city had a much different take on the slide’s causation.
“City infrastructure was not the cause of the Oct. 3 landslide, nor was it a substantially contributing cause,” answered Douglas M. Butz of the law firm of Butz Dunn DeSantis, representing the city. “The landslide was not a water-driven event. It was the result of long-term creep (earth movement) that had taken place well before Oct. 3.”
Butz noted a similar, less-devastating landslide occurred in the nearly the same area in 1961.
“There have been hundreds and hundreds of homes built since then and substantial irrigation, with a substantial increase in the moisture-content of soil, which weakened the slide plane,” he said. “Leaks were not the cause of the landslide, but rather were the result of the landslide.”
The plaintiffs claim they, their consultants and their legal representation were denied immediate access to the landslide site.
Noting an “emergency response” was in play to protect public safety, the city answered that it had granted “unfettered access” to plaintiffs and that there was no “spoilation of evidence.”
At the outset of the first day of the court hearing before Judge Ronald Styn, McClellan gave a chronological account of events leading up to the catastrophic event. He cited leaks on three separate occasions - July 18, Aug. 2 and Sept. 14 - preceding and perhaps foreshadowing the Oct. 3 slide. He argued those leaks released substantial amounts of water.
“There was a massive leak with water coming up through cracks in the street on July 18,” he said. “Water at 110 psi (pounds per square inch) of pressure was going through the main water line, which would be enough to shoot up a column of water the distance of a football field: almost a quarter of a million gallons a day.”
Responding to McClellan’s arguments about the three underground water leaks, Butz tried to minimize their impact, noting they were short-lived and attended to promptly by the city. “There wasn’t enough water to trigger this landslide,” he argued.
Butz showed slide after slide of photographs of Soledad Mountain Road at the head of the landslide, and at the “toe” of the slide down below on Desert View Drive where it culminated.
“There was no free water in the landslide mass,” said Butz. “Even bore drilling 8- to12-feet down revealed entirely dry conditions.”
If Styn finds the city liable after a three-week trial, a damages phase would follow in November to determine what damages should be awarded to each homeowner.
A landslide between Soledad Mountain Road and Desert View Drive destroyed or damaged nine homes in 2007.