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SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY: $8.5 million goes to Highland flood victims
Aug 23, 2013

San Bernardino County and the city of Highland have agreed to pay $8.5 million to residents who contended the agencies were responsible for flood control failures that buried a Highland neighborhood with mud and debris in December 2010.

A Superior Court judge officially dismissed the residents’ lawsuit against the county on Wednesday, Aug. 14, a month after the county settled with the group of 151 plaintiffs, according to court records.

The county announced Thursday that it is suing its insurance carrier, claiming that Everest National Insurance Co. is obligated to cover up to $10 million in damages, far more than the $500,000 the company agreed to pay.

The county decided to settle the case last month after two years of litigation.

According to the July 17 settlement agreement, the county paid $5 million in damages and Highland will pay $3.5 million to the plaintiffs. Attorney David Casselman, who represents the Highland property owners, said many of the residents did not have insurance when the mud flowed into their homes.

“I think it’s fair to say the homeowners were extremely stressed by what occurred and are appreciative of the public entities’ efforts to try and take care of their concerns and resolve the situation,” he said.

GRAPHIC: Flood area in Highland

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County spokeswoman Felisa Cardona said the settlement is not an admission of liability by the county. She said the county spent $2.5 million in litigation costs and made the decision to settle for financial reasons.

Highland Mayor Larry McCallon said he could not comment on the settlement but said the council may have an announcement on the case at its next meeting.

Casselman said the damage award for each client varies, based on their losses.

The Dec. 22, 2010, floods were the worst in Highland’s history. Days of rain, up to 10 inches in places, sent mud and water gushing down three creeks running through town. About 30 homes in a neighborhood known as the Village along Greenspot Road were buried in mud and declared uninhabitable. More than 200 residents were evacuated from their homes for a couple of weeks.

In their lawsuit, the Highland residents say the city and county failed to make needed improvements to a storm drainage system that runs from the foothills north of Highland Avenue to south of Greenspot to the Santa Ana River. Mud, rocks and debris were allowed to accumulate and back up the system, causing debris to flow onto their properties, the lawsuit states.

“The drainage system didn’t have the ability to carry the discharge to the Santa Ana River like it was supposed to,” Casselman said.

He said the city and county should have increased the capacity of the system to handle debris from the combination of heavy rainfall and recent fires that had left hills denuded.

Although the city had responsibility for a portion of the drainage system, McCallon said the county was responsible for the majority of the system.

“The flooding and the mud that went into the Village was a result of the county’s flood control system failing,” McCallon said.

Cardona said the county has improvements planned to two creeks and some area streets that include adding larger culverts. Construction will begin in spring 2015.

Lillie Duarte and her husband, Lorenzo Duarte, were among the parties to the lawsuit. She said the attorneys told them that they would probably get $30,000, the amount of damage to their home of 50 years.

She said a bedroom in their house was flooded and some of their belongings were damaged, but their home was not hit as hard as some of her neighbors’ houses.

Duarte said she’s relieved the case is over.

“It’s back to normal,” she said of her neighborhood.