California Utility Files Suit Against Local Districts Over Mudslides

Firefighters successfully rescued a 14-year-old girl (right) after she was trapped for hours inside a destroyed home in Montecito. (Photo courtesy Santa Barbara Fire Department)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – Southern California Edison is suing Santa Barbara County arguing that county officials should share in the liability over the deadly Montecito mudslides that killed 15 people last January after a massive wildfire ripped through Southern California.

Some 200,000 residents fled their homes as the Thomas Fire spread across multiple counties in December 2017 and into early 2018. The wildfire burned more than 280,000 acres and destroyed approximately 1,300 structures.

Shortly after the wildfire was put out, rainstorms passed through the region, saturating the soil and sending a torrent of debris into the community of Montecito. Twenty-three people died and the mudslides caused hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage with 65 homes destroyed and over 400 damaged.

Hundreds of lawsuits were filed against the utility company from property owners who claim faulty electrical equipment sparked the fire that burned through Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

In October, SCE acknowledged its equipment helped spark the fire that led to the mudslides after a Los Angeles County judge advanced a massive collection of property damage lawsuits.

On Friday, SCE sued Santa Barbara claiming its municipal agencies did not take the appropriate measures to curb the deadly mudslides, arguing that the region has seen multiple mudslides over the region’s history.

“The public entities and officials who are obligated to ensure the safety of Santa Barbara County’s residents knew such an event would inevitably reoccur,” the lawsuit states.

SCE claimed the city of Santa Barbara, the county’s flood control district, the California Department of Transportation and a local water district “failed to take measures to reduce the known and inevitable risks posed by debris flows in Santa Barbara County.”

Those measures included allowing homes to be built in known hazard-prone areas and failing to maintain debris basins and flood channels that would have been able to take on the volume of mud or rocks that would come off the watersheds.

In a statement, SCE said, “We believe that city, county and state governments – including flood control, water and transportation agencies – failed to ensure that Montecito’s infrastructure was adequate to reduce the impact of such natural disasters. This failure resulted in much of the harm from the 2018 mudslides.” 

In the 53-page cross-complaint, SCE argues bridges, roads and building codes were not built properly up to standard, which exacerbated the problem.

SCE claims the county did not have proper evacuation procedures in mandatory evacuation zones. The utility claims it’s entitled to indemnification in the event that the company is held liable for the mudslide and seeking contribution or apportionment if they have to pay for damages.

The utility is represented by John Hueston from Los Angeles-based law firm Hueston Hennigan.

An email to Santa Barbara County was not immediately returned by press time Friday evening.

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