Southern California has been hit hard the last several years. In early December 2017, homeowners and businesses in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties faced the worst wildfire in California history as the Thomas Fire destroyed more than a thousand structures – including 700 homes – and burned close to 300,000 acres.
The winds and dry conditions that fueled the fire then turned to unusually wet weather. Just days before the Thomas Fire reached full containment, the areas affected by the fire received heavy rain. On the morning of January 9th, 2017 , the Montecito area received a half-inch of rain in just five minutes. Over a two-day period, the area received as much as 4 inches of rain. Boulders and mud from the Santa Ynez Mountains flowed down into Montecito at a speed of 20 mph. Some areas were covered in 15 feet of mud and debris.
The mudslide caused more than 20,000 people to lose power. A 30-milesection of U.S. Route 101 from Santa Barbara to Ventura was filled with 2 feet of mud and debris and had to be shut down. More than 21,000 residents of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties were forced to evacuate.
The mudslide caused a significant amount of damage, and proved to be deadlier than the Thomas Fire. Twenty-one people died, with two still missing. The mudslide caused 163 people to be hospitalized with serious injuries. Sixty-five homes were destroyed, with another 462 damaged. Eight commercial buildings were destroyed, with another 20 suffering from damage.
Lawsuits from Homeowners
Homeowners, frustrated by fires and now mudslides, didn’t waste any time seeking legal action. Ten days after the mudslide began, the first lawsuit was filed. The lawsuit held the utility company liable for the mudslide. The Thomas Fire caused the soil to erode, which led to the mudslide. It is believed that the fire was caused by the utility company’s negligence. It was performing construction work in an unsafe manner in a dry season with little rain.
But residents aren’t blaming solely the utility company. It is believed that the Montecito Water District – which provides water to 4,500 people in the area – also played a role in the mudslide. A lawsuit against the utility company and the water district was filed in a California superior court and claims that a broken pipe caused the rain water to be mixed with an additional 9 million gallons of water. This caused the mudslide to increase in magnitude. The Montecito Water District is accused of being negligent by failing to maintain and properly operate its water main. This negligence caused the ruptured pipe, which then led to a worsened situation for homeowners in the area.
The lawsuit is accusing both the electric company and water district of negligence, violations of the Public Utilities Code, inverse condemnation and numerous other failures. According to the lawsuit, the trouble started the month prior, when the utility company allegedly failed to remove trees and brush around overhead electrical lines and equipment. This sparked the Thomas Fire and led to the deadly mudslides.
The lawsuit also brings up the issue of whether or not the utility company properly maintained its utility poles. The company previously was ordered to pay $37 million in fines after its failure to properly maintain power poles led to fires in Southern California in 2007. Cal Fire is still investigating the cause of the Thomas Fire and therefore the Montecito Water District and utility company are refusing to comment on litigation involving the mudslides.
This lawsuit was filed by three residents and a business, all who suffered injuries from the mudslide. The plaintiffs are seeking compensation for damages such as damaged property, emotional distress, lost wages and business profits, and other damages. The amount of compensation they will receive will be determined by a jury trial.
Utility companies are often given slaps on the wrist for their direct involvement in the deaths of Californians. They intentionally cut corners, putting people’s lives at risk. If they are punished, it’s typically for small amounts. A few million dollars is nothing to these companies, and does nothing to encourage them to stop their negligent practices.
There is hope for those affected by these recent tragedies, though. In 2015, a utility company was fined $1.6 billion for its role in a 2010 San Bruno explosion that killed eight people and injured 66 others. The number of deaths from the mudslide is much higher, so it’s possible that utility companies, water districts, city governments and othersresponsible for causing the Thomas Fire and mudslide could face hefty fines.
Insurance Coverage Possible
Many homeowners are concerned because homeowners’ insurance policies typically do not cover damage caused by mudslides. They do, however, cover fire-related damage. The official cause of the mudslides is saturated soil caused by damage to vegetation from the Thomas Fire. The trees, brush and other vegetation was holding the soil in place and absorbing the water before the fire came along and stripped it all away.
With no vegetation in place to absorb the water, the water from the heavy rains on January 9 ran down the hills and caused mudslides. Given this situation, the Thomas Fire is believed to be the proximate cause of the mudslides and subsequent damage. Therefore, insurance companies will be on the hook for paying for damages. The California Insurance Commissioner backed up this claim and is asking insurance companies to do their part to pay claims from homeowners affected by the mudslides.
File a Claim
Whether or not you receive compensation from your homeowners’ insurance company, it’s important that you understand your rights to compensation. When a person or company is considered negligent, and this negligence leads to significant damages, the victims can recover compensation for their losses. In this case, the liable parties are responsible for property damage, medical bills, funeral expenses, lost wages, mental anguish and more. If you have been affected by the Montecito mudslide, contact a personal injury lawyer to learn more about your legal options.