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SoCal Edison, Montecito Water District Sued Over Deadly Mud Flows, Flooding

Attorneys say damages could easily top $1 billion; expect to eventually have 100 or more plaintiffs

Crews continued to make progress Wednesday removing mud and debris from Highway 101 in Montecito, which officials have said won’t reopen until next week. A lawsuit has been filed alleging that Southern California Edison Co. and the Montecito Water District are liable for damages stemming from the deadly mud flows. Click to view larger
Crews continued to make progress Wednesday removing mud and debris from Highway 101 in Montecito, which officials have said won’t reopen until next week. A lawsuit has been filed alleging that Southern California Edison Co. and the Montecito Water District are liable for damages stemming from the deadly mud flows. (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

A lawsuit has been filed on behalf of several plaintiffs who allege that Southern California Edison Co. and the Montecito Water District are liable for damages and injuries caused by the massive Thomas Fire and last week’s resulting debris flows and flash floods in Montecito.

The legal action was filed Friday in Santa Barbara Superior Court and expanded on Tuesday, according to Peter J. Bezek of Foley Bezek Behle & Curtis, one of two law firms handling the case.

Additional plaintiffs are expected to be added in the coming days and weeks, Bezek said, and could easily number 100 or more.

In the lawsuit, Edison is accused of negligence in the maintenance of its power lines, which the complaint alleges caused the Thomas Fire to break out in two locations on Dec. 4 near Santa Paula.

The Montecito Water District is accused of failures in the operation and maintenance of its “highline” water main, which ruptured during last week’s flooding and debris flow, allowing some 9 million gallons of water to drain from district reservoirs.

The complaint alleges the rupture increased the magnitude of the flooding and the damage.

The lawsuit does not indicate a specific amount of damages, but asks for a judgment including cost of repair or replacement of property; emotional distress; living expenses; lost wages, earnings and business profits; attorney’s and related court fees; punitive and exemplary damages, and all costs of the lawsuit.

“Total damages the mudslide has caused are easily in excess of $1 billion,” Bezek told Noozhawk. “I’ve seen estimates that it could be as much as $2 billion.”

Named as plaintiffs in the suit are Lori Ann Lieberman, Plum Goods LLC, and Aimee Klaus as guardian for Alyssa Miller and Holden Miller.

Crews continued to make progress Wednesday removing mud and debris from Highway 101 in Montecito, which officials have said won’t reopen until next week. Click to view larger
Crews continued to make progress Wednesday removing mud and debris from Highway 101 in Montecito, which officials have said won’t reopen until next week. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

Lieberman is a singer-songwriter who splits her time between Calabasas and a home near Romero Canyon Road and East Valley Road, according to attorney Joseph Liebman, who is part of the plaintiff’s legal team.

Lieberman was not at home when the mud flow struck, but her residence was damaged, Liebman said, adding that she has not been able to access the home to assess the damage.

Plum Goods is a clothing and gift store on the 900 block of State Street in downtown Santa Barbara.

It did not sustain any physical damage from the fire or floods, but is claiming business losses due to the fire and flood evacuations, the smokey conditions that kept people away from downtown during the Thomas Fire, and the closure of Highway 101 for the past week.

Klaus is a single mother of two children who lives off San Ysidro Road. Her home was not damaged, but she and her family were evacuated twice — for the fire and the floods — and had to be rescued during the mud flows. 

The lawsuit claims an Edison pole-mounted transformer exploded and/or caught fire on Anlauf Canyon road above Steckel Park near Santa Paula at 6:26 p.m. on Dec. 4.

A second transformer exploded and/or caught fire about 30 minutes later on Koenigstein Drive, the suit alleges.

“This transformer explosion was witnessed by several area residents,” according to the lawsuit. “This transformer fire was a second ignition point of the Thomas Fire and was located approximately 5.8 miles from the initial ignition point on Anlauf Canyon Road, Santa Paula.

Firefighters from Vandenberg Air Force Base and Lompoc watch as crews clean up Highway 101 in Montecito on Wednesday. Click to view larger
Firefighters from Vandenberg Air Force Base and Lompoc watch as crews clean up Highway 101 in Montecito on Wednesday. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

“The wildfire started by both points of ignition joined and burned as one fire, known as the Thomas Fire, into Santa Barbara County.”

The blaze blackened 281,893 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties before being declared fully contained on Jan. 12.

It destroyed 1,063 structures while damaging 280 others. Two people, a firefighter and a civilian, died in the blaze.

The lawsuit alleges that Edison failed “to properly construct and maintain its electrical infrastructure and ensure that surrounding trees and vegetation were trimmed and kept at a safe distance.”

It also accuses Edison of failing to de-energize its power lines in the face of predictions for strong Santa Ana winds.

By burning and destroying the watershed in the mountains above Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria, the Thomas Fire “left these areas susceptible to excessive runoff, erosion, mud and debris flows in the event of a heavy rainstorm event,” the lawsuit claims.

The flash flooding and debris flows on Jan. 9 caused breaks in the Montecito Water District’s “highline,” which carries water from the district’s reservoirs in the foothills to its distribution lines.

The breaks allowed some 9 million gallons of water to drain from the reservoirs, because there was no power to activate automatic shutoff valves, and back-up generators could not be reached by district personnel to be activated, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims that the water draining from the reservoirs added to the devastating flooding and mud flows, and increased the damage and injury from the incident.

“The resulting flow of mud, debris and water have caused loss of life and personal injuries, widespread and extensive property damage, and have created a vast wasteland over much of Montecito where homes and business once stood. 

“Interstate Freeway 101 is closed and surface streets and roads are impassable, making rescues of residents impossible and leaving numerous business owners and employees unable to reach their place of work. 

“The domestic water supply system has been damaged such that neither residents nor businesses have clean sanitary drinking water. 

“Plaintiffs have suffered property damage, economic loss, and disruption to their homes, businesses, lives and livelihoods, and they seek fair compensation for themselves in this case.”

When reached for comment about the lawsuit, Southern California Edison issued the following statement, noting that it had not been served as of Wednesday. 

“The devastating impact of the mudslides in Montecito has been tragic,” Edison said. “Our current focus right now is on supporting first responders. Immediately following that effort, our crews will attempt to safely expedite restoration of power to customers in that area due to damaged equipment.

“In regards to the potential causes of the Thomas Fire, we understand that CalFire’s investigation is ongoing, and it would be premature for SCE to speculate about potential litigation associated with the recent mudslides.”

The Montecito Water District did not respond to a request for comment.

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.

Residents of Montecito wait near the Santa Barbara Cemetery to be escorted in to their homes in the mandatory evacuation zone to retrieve important items. Click to view larger
Residents of Montecito wait near the Santa Barbara Cemetery to be escorted in to their homes in the mandatory evacuation zone to retrieve important items. (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk photo)

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