The first lawsuit to arise out of the Thomas Fire and Montecito’s subsequent avalanche of mud and boulders was filed last Friday in Santa Barbara County; named are Southern California Edison, which owned the transformers that reportedly blew out in quick succession the evening of December 4 in Santa Paula and Ojai, and the Montecito Water District.
The lawsuit claims that eight million to nine million gallons of water was negligently allowed to drain out of water district reservoirs and spill into Montecito’s creek channels, which were engulfed in a disastrous debris flow event the morning of January 9, because the system of automatic shut-off valves failed. This reportedly occurred because the back-up generators needed to power the system were never turned on. Back-up generators were needed because the storm had shut down power to Montecito customers, including the Water District.
As a result, the lawsuit contends 37,530 tons of water spilled into Montecito’s creeks that otherwise would not have been there, thus contributing significantly to a disaster that’s claimed 20 lives and destroyed 115 homes to date. The lawsuit relied upon quotes attributed to Water District manager Nick Turner in a Noozhawk article stating that district employees could not gain access to the back-up generators during the storm to turn them on.
“We find it incredible they [the back-up generators] were not already on that morning, given that many Montecito residents had already been placed on mandatory evacuation notice and others on warning,” stated attorney Joseph Liebman, representing one of three major legal offices waging what they describe as “a mass tort” claim. According to Thomas Foley, another lawyer leading this legal charge, 15 to 20 plaintiffs are now represented.
Turner declined to comment, stating he had not seen the lawsuit. He declined to comment on the accuracy of the Noozhawk account as well, stating he hadn’t read that either. Water District counsel Bob Cohen said he was astonished a lawsuit had been filed so fast. “It would seem speculative and premature, but we haven’t seen it yet and can’t comment.”
The lawsuit was initially filed on behalf of three Montecito property owners whose properties were either damaged or destroyed during the storm. Among the plaintiffs is Lori Ann Lieberman, a singer songwriter who divides her time between Los Angeles and her Montecito home by Romero Canyon and East Valley roads. Lieberman also employed a family landscaping company whose owners — two brothers from Mexico — have each lost a wife and child to the debris flow. That family, however, is not part of this action.
It’s unclear to what extent, if at all, the loss of this water from Water District reservoirs contributed to the damage inflicted by last week’s events. Liebman insists the contribution was indeed significant, but added it will take expert analysis by geologists and hydrologists to determine precisely how much.
According to Turner, the High Line pipes — a main water delivery trunk line that runs roughly seven miles along East Mountain Drive and supplies Montecito’s network of seven reservoirs — cracked in six locations during the debris flow event. Nick Turner expressed optimism that temporary repairs will be finished by this Thursday or Friday, allowing full pressure to be achieved throughout the district’s distribution system. It will be several weeks, however, before the order to boil all water is lifted, he said.
The lawsuit also constituted an action against Southern California Edison, the electrical utility company whose blown power transformers are thought to be responsible for starting the Thomas Fire in the first place. That fire appears to have two points of origin, one in Santa Paula, the other near Ojai, both involving the power-line infrastructure of SCE. Part of the Santa Barbara mass tort action is attorney Alex Robertson of Westlake Village, who now represents about 100 Ventura county residents in a similar action filed in that county.
Among other things, Robertson contends SCE failed to shut down power in its grids serving Ventura County the night the Thomas Fire broke out even though winds were projected to gust at 70 to 80 miles an hour. The PUC, Robertson argued, authorized SCE to shut down in high fire areas to prevent wildfire. Because it didn’t do so, the Thomas Fire started. Attorney Tom Foley is arguing that the fire blackened skies over Santa Barbara and cast a pall over Christmas shopping, thus damaging downtown retail merchants, like Plum Goods. “These are companies that make 25 percent of their sales during Christmas,” Foley said. “You don’t get that back.”