Family of Bluff Collapse Victims Sue California

Search and rescue personnel work at the site of a cliff collapse at a popular beach on Aug. 2, 2019, in Encinitas, Calif. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

SAN DIEGO (CA) — A deadly bluff collapse that killed three family members enjoying a summer day on a picturesque Southern California beach last year, “was not a random act of nature,” their families claim in a wrongful death lawsuit accusing California, the city of Encinitas and property management companies of negligence.

Last August, three women were killed when a bluff above Grandview Beach in Encinitas, California, collapsed, unleashing tons of sandstone on the sunbathers below, trapping them.

Anne Davis Clave, 35, and her mother Julie Davis, 65 died at hospitals August 2, 2019, while Elizabeth Charles, Clave’s aunt, died instantly under the rubble. The trio and their families were apparently directed by the city lifeguard on duty to set up their beach belongings directly under the bluffs “in the clear zone of danger.”

A lawsuit filed in San Diego Superior Court last week, made available Monday, revealed just how gruesome Clave’s death was.

“One victim was buried so deep under rubble that heavy machinery was required for the paramedics to even reach her, and her body could only be recovered in pieces and fragments. Her heart was never recovered,” the family members claim in their 33-page lawsuit filed by Athea Trial Lawyers attorney Deborah Chang.

Plaintiff Pat Davis, whose wife Julie and daughter Anne both died that day, scrambled to make sure the duo could breathe before help arrived to lift the sandstone which crushed them.

The tragedy was preventable, the families claim. They say it was caused by the infrastructure to support the public access stairway and the “Seabluffe” urban condominium development whose poor storm drain management and irrigation — and invasive, non-native ice plant — caused the unstable sandstone bluffs overlooking the cliffs to collapse.

“Defendants state of California and city of Encinitas were repeatedly warned by scientists and engineers of these dangers, and were explicitly told what was needed to mitigate the risks of block falls and cliff collapse,” the families claim.

“These defendants, however, failed to do even the bare minimum to keep families and beach-goers safe, and instead allowed man-made changes to increase the instability and risk of collapse over the years. By doing so, defendants made the risk of collapse inevitable and created a time bomb for the beach-going public. The only question was when it would occur and who would be injured or killed,” they added.

Hoping to address the dangerous conditions of the cliffs, Representative Mike Levin, D-Calif., secured $400,000 in federal funding earlier this year for the engineering phase of the project. Despite the dangerous conditions, the beach is still open a year later.

“Most disturbing to the family, the conditions existing at Grandview Beach have not improved or been fixed, and remain a danger to every man, woman, and child who comes there. A recent photo taken only a year after the tragedy shows that beachgoers still sit and lay directly under the cliffs in the direct presence of the lifeguards on duty — and totally unaware of the peril that surrounds them,” the lawsuit states. 

The families claim money is a primary reason the Encinitas beach remains open.

Acting through its Department of Parks and Recreation and the California Coastal Commission, the state of California opts to keep all its beaches open because “they constitute some of the state’s greatest assets and directly contribute to what is equivalent to the world’s fifth largest economy,” according to the lawsuit.

“Keeping these beaches open is the primary priority of the California Coastal Commission, even at the cost of human lives,” the women’s families claim.

According to the lawsuit, the tragedy was decades in the making.

The 1984 General Plan for Grandview Beach recognized the areas north and south of the public stairway — which was destroyed by a landslide the year prior — were “prime candidates” for future bluff erosion and explicitly prohibited the erection of seawalls at the beach in response.

There was no public access to the beach for years, as a geological survey was needed to determine the stability of the area to rebuild pedestrian access. The survey, authored by Woodward-Clyde Consultants in 1988, noted numerous points of weakness in the cliff area and recommended 80 feet of rock bolts be installed to stabilize the cliff.

But when the public stairway was installed, only 35 feet of rock bolts and seawall were installed.

The 1991 application to demolish the remnants of the old stairway and build a new public access stairway was approved by the California Coastal Commission. Because the state agency noted the area had been subject to extensive groundwater seepage, it approved the application to build the stairway with a reinforced retaining wall, flouting the General Plan for the beach.

A walkway leading to the stairway flanked by 10 palm trees — which would require additional irrigation — was also approved by the Coastal Commission.

The project permit approved by the Coastal Commission was conditioned on an irrigation system located in the stairs being removed, non-native ice plants being removed and replaced with native plants, and annual erosion monitoring by the city of Encinitas.

None of the conditions have been met by the city, the families claim.

Compounding the problems caused by the seawall, public stairway and irrigation is improper stormwater management in the Seabluffe community on top of the cliff, according to the complaint.

The families seek general and special damages. The California Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday evening. 

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