Monday, November 12 , 2018, 5:42 pm | Fair 65º


Class-Action Lawsuit Filed Against SoCal Edison for Damages from Thomas Fire, Montecito Mudslides

Utility blamed for sparking 281,893-acre blaze that destroyed hundreds of homes and led to subsequent flooding in Santa Barbara County

Flames from the Thomas Fire burn near high-power lines last month above Carpinteria. A class-action lawsuit has been filed against Southern California Edison for damages during the fire and subsequent flooding and mudflows in Montecito. Click to view larger
Flames from the Thomas Fire burn near high-power lines last month above Carpinteria. A class-action lawsuit has been filed against Southern California Edison for damages during the fire and subsequent flooding and mudflows in Montecito. (Ryan Cullom / Noozhawk file photo)

A class-action lawsuit has been filed against Southern California Edison, claiming the giant utility was responsible for damages caused by December’s Thomas Fire and this month’s resulting flooding and mudslides in Montecito.

The lawsuit, with seven named plaintiffs, was filed Wednesday in Superior Court in Los Angeles County by Santa Barbara law firms Cappello & Noel and Keller Rohrback, and San Francisco-based Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein. All three are experienced in major class-action lawsuits.

Similar to other recent lawsuits filed in the wake of the 281,893-acre Thomas Fire and the deadly flooding and mudslides in Montecito that followed, the class-action complaint alleges that Edison construction crews sparked the blaze at 6:26 p.m. on Dec. 4 while working near Steckel Park north of Santa Paula.

A second fire started roughly 30 minutes later — about five miles away — when a power-pole transformer exploded near the top of Koenigstein Drive, according to the lawsuit.

The two blazes combined to become the Thomas Fire — named after nearby Thomas Aquinas College — which eventually roared through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, destroying more than 1,000 homes and causing two deaths, including a firefighter.

The lawsuit was filed as a class-action, according to local attorney A. Barry Cappello, because it involves only property damages and financial losses as opposed to personal injury or wrongful death. The latter are not allowed in class-action lawsuits, Cappello said.

Named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are:

» Victoria Frost and Robert Blanchard. She is a nutritionist and personal trainer at the Coral Casino Beach & Cabana Club, and has lost business and income due to evacuations; he is a construction project manager whose project burned in the fire.

» Martha Smilgis owns a townhouse on Olive Mill road that was severely damaged by the mudslides.

» Diane Meehan is the owner of Dadiana Montecito salon, which was forced to close due to evacuations related to the fire and floods, and remains shut down.

» Peter Park, Kelly Park and Platinum Performance Fitness Inc. in Summerland. The Parks operate a gym and do personal training, and lost business due to evacuations and the Highway 101 closure. Their home on Chelham Way also sustained smoke and ash damage from the fire.

» Honhai Inc., owned by Lisa Lee and Peter Chen, which does business as China Pavilion restaurant at 1202 Chapala St. in downtown Santa Barbara. The restaurant lost business during the fire and freeway closure, and suffered other related losses.

» Thomas E. Carroll operates a personal-driving business in Montecito and Santa Barbara, and lost business during the fire and flooding aftermath. In the lawsuit he claims his business has been “virtually nonexistent” since Jan. 9.

» Christopher T. Burke works as a personal trainer in Summerland, and claims he has lost 70 percent of his business due to the fire and floods.

While acknowledging it's “only a guess,” Cappello said the eventual number of plaintiffs in the class action could total 8,000 to 10,000.

The lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles County, Cappello said, because the attorneys expected a change-of-venue motion from Edison that “probably” would have been granted.

Southern California Edison, a subsidiary of Edison International, is based in Rosemead in Los Angeles County, which allows the suit to be filed there, as opposed to Santa Barbara to Ventura counties, where the alleged damages occurred, Cappello said.

Edison was expected to be served with the lawsuit this week, he added.

The lawsuit does not ask for a specific damage amount, but is making claims for damages and/or loss of personal or real property; loss of use of personal or real property; lost wages, earning capacity and or business profits; attorneys fees and litigation costs; punitive and exemplary damages; and general damages for “fear, worry, annoyance, disturbance, inconvenience, mental anguish, emotional distress, and loss of quiet enjoyment of property.”

Unlike the earlier mass-tort cases, the class-action lawsuit does not name the Montecito Water District as a defendant, although Cappello said that could change as the legal action progresses through the courts.

The other lawsuits allege that the water district was partly to blame for the flood damages and injuries, because its main water lines broke, allowing some 8-9 million gallons of water to drain from district reservoirs, allegedly exacerbating the flooding.

Edison issued the following statement in response to the class-action suit:

"The devastating impact of the mudslides in Montecito has been tragic. SCE crews worked around the clock to restore power to affected customers in the community and SCE continues working with local and county officials as they safely repopulate the area.

"In regard to the potential causes of the Thomas Fire and the Montecito mudslides, the investigations are ongoing. At this time, it would be premature for SCE to speculate about litigation associated with the recent mudslides or the fire."

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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