Litigation to follow Mount Soledad landslide


A week after the eastern slope of Mt. Soledad gave way and amid reports that new cracks are appearing on the hill, the deepest fissure of all may be between affected homeowners and the city.

With one home completely destroyed and six expected to remain unsafe to enter for at least the next several weeks, homeowners are turning to what will likely be their only possible recourse to recover some of the value of their homes - litigation. At least two lawsuits have already been filed by Mt. Soledad homeowners alleging that the city is responsible for the failure of the hillside, with more possibly to follow.

Homeowners insurance generally does not cover earth movement. It is considered a risk that is only possible in certain areas, along the same lines as flooding, and insurance companies can’t ask their customers to pay to offset a risk that will never apply to the vast majority of homes.

As a result, the affected homeowners on Mt. Soledad stand to lose the value of their homes unless the city is found liable for the damages. One suit, filed by attorney Craig McClellan on behalf of the Clark family, whose home was destroyed in the landslide, alleges that the catastrophe was caused by leaky city water pipes that soaked and loosened the soil on Mt. Soledad until it gave way.

“The City ... washed away the homes by its careless failure to monitor and repair its old pipes,” McClellan said.

City representatives moved quickly in the aftermath of the landslide to describe that scenario in the reverse, arguing that the movement of the hillside in recent weeks caused the leaks in the water pipes. The mayor’s office sent out notices highlighting the historical instability of the soil on Mt. Soledad. They noted that a naturally occurring landslide in 1961 destroyed seven homes that were under construction on the east side of the hill. In 1989, construction of a new home started a slide in the area of last week’s landslide.

Soledad Mountain Road homeowners were sent a letter on Sept. 19 informing them that the city would be installing above-ground piping for the main water line on the street, work that began on Sept. 20.

“The purpose of this effort is to minimize potential for damage to the water main and roadway from possible soil movement in the 5700 block of Soledad Mountain Road,” the letter, from city engineer Hossein Ruhi, stated.

Also in response to apparent soil movement, the city lowered the speed limit along the affected portion of Soledad Mountain Road from 35 miles per hour to 25, in an effort to reduce vibration due to faster-moving traffic.

As we know now, those efforts were for naught. The outcome of the forthcoming litigation will likely hinge on whether the plaintiffs can prove that water from leaky city pipes caused the earth to move.

Attorneys representing Soledad homeowners were already in court by Oct. 5, when John Schroeder and Jannik Catalano, representing homeowner Brian Burke, were in court with San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre. Aguirre agreed to allow the plaintiffs’ geotechnical and hydrologist experts to inspect the site whenever city crews are present.

The city itself has already received some measure of relief. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger moved quickly to affirm the city’s request to have the situation declared a local emergency, which the San Diego City Council affirmed in an emergency meeting the morning after the landslide. The governor’s declaration means that state funds and equipment could be used to help rebuild the affected portion of Soledad Mountain Road. City estimates put the damage to public property in excess of $25 million.

“I am very gratified by the Governor’s immediate response to this emergency,” Mayor Jerry Sanders said. “He is to be commended for understanding our needs and allowing us to begin our rebuilding efforts in an expedited basis.”

The city has not put an official estimate on how long the huge job of rebuilding Soledad Mountain Road will take.

For homeowners, their only short-term financial relief may come in the form of property tax breaks. County officials say that property taxes could be reassessed for property owners who suffered damage in excess of $10,000.

“If residents are unsure whether they qualify for assistance, they can simply call us and we will help,” County Assessor Greg Smith said. Call the Assessor at (858) 505-6262.