Sunday, September 4, 2011

Appellate Court Rejects Homeowners’ Claims For Inverse Condemnation

A recent decision of California's Fourth District Court of Appeal resolved claims for inverse condemnation brought against San Bernardino County by property owners whose homes were destroyed by water, dirt, and debris flowing from nearby mountains. 

The case, Michael T. Gutierrez et al. v. County of San Bernardino, addressed flooding damages caused by intense rains that occurred after a large fire had denuded the upslope area.  After the first significant rains in December 2003 caused debris to flow into the downslope neighborhood, the County placed protective “K-rails” to guide debris away from homes.  Unfortunately, in October 2004, more heavy rainfall occurred and caused more water and debris to flow downward, some of which escaped the confines of the K-rails and damaged homes.  Property owners sued, alleging the County’s installation of the K-rails was responsible for the damage.  The appellate court rejected the claims, finding that the K-rails were not a substantial cause of the damage and that the County would not be held to a strict liability standard, but one of reasonableness, which it had met.  The court found the K-rails were installed under “exigent circumstances” and that “[a]s a matter of public policy and common sense, some protective action should not be discouraged.”  The court also concluded:

Here, installing the K-rails, the County was attempting to protect private property owners from a risk created by nature.  The evidence is clear that the County’s conduct did not create a situation or risk that would not otherwise have been present had it not installed the K-rails.
Given the variable nature of California’s climate and fire cycles, such events are sure to occur again and again.  The case is a good read for agency and private lawyers alike because it addresses and distinguishes several legal standards in inverse condemnation cases, and may help shape future government and private responses to existing risks and future calamities.

A copy of the court's opinion may be found here.

If you have any questions regarding this decision, please contact Hanspeter Walter or the KMTG attorney with whom you normally consult.

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