Socal Self Storage Vs. Clark Family Holdings, et al.

    12.18.2013

    Stephen H. Smith, Peter W. Felchlin and Lauren A. R. Lofton obtained judgment on behalf of three clients, a business landowner and two former property owners, in which the plaintiff alleged causes of action for negligence, trespass, nuisance and conversion against the clients, and inverse condemnation against several public agencies, for damage to plaintiff's storage facility.

    In December 2010, a significant rainstorm occurred in Southern California, particularly near the border of San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The inundation of water resulted in the overflow of a nearby uphill basin, which propelled water, mud, rocks and debris downhill from the basin, through the city, over the property of the business landowner and its adjoining neighbors, and ultimately into plaintiff's storage facility. Plaintiff's storage facility was situated at the bottom of the hill, in front of a flood control channel. Plaintiff claims to have suffered damages exceeding $1 million.

    Plaintiff initially alleged that the clients altered their property so as to increase the flow of water, mud, rocks and debris into plaintiff's storage facility during the storm. This was disproven during discovery, however. Plaintiff then adopted the position that because the clients failed to protect or otherwise actively stop the flow of water, mud, rocks and debris onto plaintiff's property, i.e., through putting up sand bags, the clients were liable under Keys v. Romley (1966) 64 Cal.2d 396, the latter of which requires reasonableness in conduct when discharging water on the property of a lower landowner.

    The clients sought summary judgment on the grounds that they did not owe a duty to plaintiff to protect against unforeseeable damage as well as the fact that it was undisputed that they did nothing to cause water, mud, rocks and debris from entering plaintiff's property. It was also argued that Keys' reasonableness of conduct analysis did not apply where the clients took no action to prevent water, mud, rocks and debris from entering plaintiff's property. Finally, the former clients argued that they could not be liable to plaintiff where they had no ownership interest in the property at the time of the incident.

    In opposition, plaintiff argued that Keys required reasonable conduct and that it was an issue of fact for the jury to determine whether the client's inaction was reasonable. Plaintiff further argued that a property owner could not insulate itself from liability for structures or alterations to property performed by a prior owner. In essence, plaintiff argued strict liability for any current property owner, based on the conduct of the original builder of the property and structures thereon, or any prior owner making improvements to property.

    Following extensive oral argument, the court granted summary judgment on numerous grounds: (1) the clients did not breach any duty since they made no alterations to their property and did not reasonably foresee plaintiff's damages from the December 2010 rainstorm; (2) the clients did not intentionally, negligently or recklessly enter plaintiff's property or interfere with plaintiff's use and enjoyment since mud, debris and rock did not originate from the clients; (3) the clients did not dispose plaintiff of personal property as there was no evidence that the alleged water had any substantial factor in causing plaintiff's damage; (4) the cause of plaintiff's damage was related to structural failures on plaintiff's property; and (5) the former property owners could not be liable to plaintiff where they did not own the property at the time of the incident.

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