Attorneys representing victims and families affected by the Montecito debris flows filed multiple wrongful-death lawsuits this week against Southern California Edison, claiming negligence by the utility caused the 281,893-acre Thomas Fire in December, which in turn led to the January’s death and destruction.
Heavy rains over the denuded mountains behind Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria caused the mud and debris flows that claimed the lives of 23 people, damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes, and forced widespread evacuations.
Peter Fleurat, 73, died in the debris flows after a “wall of mud, boulders and debris” swept him and his longtime partner, Ralph Lalo Barajas, out of their Montecito home on Hot Springs Road as it collapsed in the early hours of Jan. 9, according to one of the lawsuits.
In the case, which was filed Wednesday in Santa Barbara Superior Court on behalf of Barajas and four of Fleurat’s siblings, attorneys allege Edison’s negligence is to blame for the Thomas Fire, which led to destructive debris flows, resulting in Fleurat’s death.
“Had SCE acted responsibly, the Thomas Fire could have been prevented,” the complaint alleges. “The fire left these areas susceptible to excessive runoff, erosion mud and debris flows in the event of a heavy rainstorm event.”
Fleurat’s last words were yelling at Barajas to “grab onto something, and don’t let go,” according to court records.
Debris flows resulted in the wrongful death of Fleurat and the total loss of his home and extensive art collection, and caused personal injuries to Barajas and destruction of his personal property, the complaint alleges.
The lawsuit asks for costs of repairing or replacing damaged property, loss of wages, attorney’s fees, and general damages.
The case was announced at a press conference Thursday in Montecito, where Barajas spoke.
“I want to have a normal life again,” Barajas said. “I had a beautiful life with Peter… I will never get that back.”
Fleurat was found buried in mud the following day near Olive Mill Road in Montecito, and Barajas suffered “traumatic injuries,” according to the lawsuit.
Attorneys Peter Bezek of Foley Bezek Behle & Curtis LLP in Santa Barbara, Alexander Robertson IV of Westlake Village, Joseph Liebman of Santa Barbara, and Geoff Spreter of San Diego are representing the plaintiffs.
Another wrongful-death case was filed Wednesday in the Superior Court in Los Angeles County against Edison by attorneys representing Montecito resident and mother Carie Baker-Corey.
Baker-Corey, along with her twin 12-year-old daughters, Summer and Sawyer Corey, and their half-sister, Morgan Corey, 25, were swept from their home in the Jan. 9 debris flow.
Morgan and Sawyer died, and Baker-Corey and Summer were critically injured but survived, according to the lawsuit.
Attorneys with Panish Shea & Boyle LLP, the Wildfire Victim Advocates legal group, and Rogers, Sheffield & Campbell LLP, announced the case Thursday at a press conference in Montecito.
“I asked God to let me live, and let them live,” Baker-Corey said.
In the early morning hours on Jan. 9, Morgan Corey and Baker-Corey were awakened by loud noises from outside their home, according to court documents.
“Suddenly, an avalanche of water was seen coming towards them, snapping 80 foot high trees like they were matchsticks,” the complaint alleges. “The sound was deafening and terrifying. All Carie had time to do was take Morgan’s hand.”
Water crashed through their house and the structure fell from its raised foundation and split in half, the suit alleged.
According to the lawsuit, Baker-Corey and Morgan were holding hands as they became engulfed in water, and rushing water and debris took hold of Morgan.
“I’ll never forget her face, and the fear in her eyes looking at me,” Baker-Corey said. “Eventually, the water became so strong. We bounced around between giant boulders as big as cars, and huge trees flying by us.
According to court records, Morgan’s last words were to her mother “What do we do? What do we do?”
The lawsuit asks for costs of repairing or replacing damaged property, loss of wages, attorney’s fees, funeral and burial expenses, and general damages.
“We are trying to do the best we can and keep a positive attitude,” Baker-Corey said. “I don’t want this to happen to anyone else.”
Two other lawsuits stemming from the debris flows also were filed Wednesday.
Michael Armand and Misty Hammer, who own a home at 670 Lilac Drive, are plaintiffs in a negligence case against Edison, asking for damages for property, economic loss and economic distress.
The debris flows destroyed their 3,000-square-foot home, guest house, “spectacular landscaping” and valuable artwork, the complaint alleges.
Pierre LaFond and Wendy Foster are plaintiffs in a suit against Edison for negligence, public nuisance, private nuisance and violations of health-and-safety codes and public utilities codes, according to court documents.
LaFond is the owner of the Pierre LaFond Market Deli and Montecito Wine Bistro at 516 San Ysidro Road, and Foster is the owner of Wendy Foster Dress Shop, Wendy Foster Upstairs and Wendy Foster Sportswear at 516 San Ysidro Road, and Angel at 1221 Coast Village Road.
The businesses lost profits during evacuations, extended overhead expenses, and other damages due to the Thomas Fire and debris flows, the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit asks for damages for business interruption, lost profits, loss of use, loss of wages, attorney fees and punitive damages.
SoCal Edison spokesman David Song wrote in an email, “The Thomas Fire has obviously had an impact on many individuals, but the origin and cause of the fire continue to be under investigation, and no report has yet been issued. This and other lawsuits are not based on findings related to an investigation. Therefore, it would be premature for SCE to comment on the origin or cause of the wildfire.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.