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Jury finds Caltrans partly responsible for ’03 mudslide that killed 14 [Updated]

October 14, 2010 |  2:26 pm


Caltrans could have to pay between $1 million and $4 million to a church whose retreat was the site of a catastrophic mudslide after a jury decided the agency was partly responsible for the 2003 disaster that killed 14 people in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Jurors last week found Caltrans, which built and maintained a highway above St. Sophia Camp and Retreat Center, 31% responsible for the massive Christmas Day mudslide. Rains sent mud, boulders and entire trees rushing down Waterman Canyon just two months after a major wildfire, leaving families gathered at the camp little opportunity to get out of the way.

Survivors and victims' families sued the St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church and Foundation after the slide. In 2008, the church settled the lawsuit for $13 million.

The church countersued Caltrans, alleging the construction and maintenance of California 18 created an unnatural diversion of water and debris that made the mudflow much worse than it would otherwise have been.

Caltrans attorney Ruth Yeager said the tragedy was a natural disaster attributable only to the camp's location at the bottom of a burned-out canyon. No evidence ties damage and casualties at the camp to the highway above, she said.

"They were simply part of the same watershed and the camp was at the bottom of a burned-out canyon," she said. "This watershed produces debris flows without State Route 18 in the picture."

Attorneys for the church argued that the highway directed runoff onto steep, loose and unreinforced slopes, intensifying the flow and sending it directly toward the camp.

"Caltrans designed and maintained their highway … in a way that they knew — or should have known — would cause big trouble for people downstream," said St. Sophia attorney David Ringwood.

The jury determined the highway, built in 1928, was in dangerous condition at the time of the mudslide and a "substantial factor" in causing harm to the victims.

In a second verdict Wednesday, jurors set the economic damages to victims at $3.2 million, leaving it to San Bernardino County Judge Brian McCarville to rule whether Caltrans should pay their share of all damages or just the economic ones. A hearing is scheduled for next month.

Caltrans, Yeager said, will be filing motions disputing the percentage of liability and calling for a new trial.

-- Tony Barboza

[Updated at 3:10 p.m.: An earlier version of this post, and the headline, did not make it clear that the economic damages would be paid to St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church -- and not to survivors and victims' families.]

Photo: A resident takes a break from clearing mud and debris after a mudslide hit his Waterman Canyon home. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times