(CN) — Residents who fled from their homes after the Oroville Dam was damaged in 2017 cannot sue as a class, the California Third District Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.
The decision from the Sacramento-based court, which upheld a lower court's ruling, means that plaintiffs suing over the near disaster must each file separate lawsuits.
"The potential viability of the proposed class action appears to depend heavily on the common fact of an evacuation order, but the orders are themselves vague," a three-judge panel of the court wrote in its opinion.
The tallest dam in the U.S., Oroville Dam stands about 77 miles north of Sacramento, where Lake Oroville spills out into the Feather River, and is used for water storage, flood control and hydroelectric power. Heavy rains in the first two months of 2017 sent an unprecedented volume of water through the dam's main spillway, which became damaged. Officials were forced to send water down a crude emergency spillway for the first time in the dam's nearly 50-year history.
A number of counties, including Butte, Sutter and Yuba, told residents to leave their homes, and roughly 188,000 people evacuated. Perhaps miraculously, officials' worst fears went unrealized, and the near-failure of the dam caused limited damage. No one was hurt, and evacuation orders were reduced to "evacuation warnings" after just two nights.
Several plaintiffs sued the state, including the city of Oroville and a number of residents and farmers downstream of the dam. Those individual plaintiffs coalesced into two groups, each seeking to be certified as a class. These were known in proceedings as the Bechtel plaintiffs, who sought to represent all 188,000 people who were forced to evacuate, and Giordano plaintiffs, who sought to represent property owners whose "property values were diminished as a result of the Oroville Dam Crisis and/or the unsafe condition of the Oroville Dam.”
In a 90-page ruling, the trial court denied both sets of plaintiffs' class status. Only the Bechtel plaintiffs appealed.
The Bechtel plaintiffs' claims were fairly modest. According to their court brief, they simply sought “to recover out of pocket expenses incurred ... during the two-day mandatory evacuation period and the value of the loss of use of their properties for the two-day mandatory evacuation period.”
The state's Department of Water Resources argued, in filings in the lower court, that the Bechtel plaintiffs couldn't constitute a class because it was impossible to determine exactly why different people had evacuated. While some counties had issued "mandatory" evacuation orders, other jurisdictions only "strongly recommended" evacuation." Even a "mandatory" evacuation wasn't actually mandatory, they argued, since there is no penalty for ignoring the order, and no one comes and forcibly removes you from your home. The state argued that it was impossible to know who had heard what order or recommendation since such messages are typically communicated through the media and not, say, a written letter in the mail.
The lower court wrote, in its decision, "it would be difficult (and in some cases impossible) for many of the putative class members to determine whether they would be eligible to join in the class action. Even the ‘mandatory’ order is not sufficiently detailed to provide enough information to determine if a person actually evacuated, whether an evacuation occurred from a residence, whether that residence was within the ‘zone’ of evacuation and even which order (if any) prompted an evacuation.”
In its own 12-page decision, the three appeals court judges — Jonathan Renner, Elena Duarte and Louis Mauro — agreed.
The Bechtel plaintiffs' attorney and a spokesperson for the Department of Water Resources did not immediately respond to requests for comments.
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