Over 40 California Citizens Sue DWR, Alleging Oroville Dam Failure was Cause by Decades of Mismanagement

January 31, 2018

Over 40 farmers, businesses, and property owners have filed a lawsuit against the Department of Water Resources (“DWR”), alleging that the Oroville Dam’s failure in February 2017 was caused by decades of mismanagement.  The businesses include Purple Line Urban Winery, Dirks Automotive, and Roplast Industries, a plastics manufacturer.  The dam’s failure triggered an evacuation and caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to farms, businesses, and private property.  The lawsuit seeks to recover damages for many of those who were injured.

As alleged in the 80-page complaint, the Oroville Dam was “managed to failure” by DWR.  DWR allegedly had notice of the vulnerabilities of the Dam’s main spillway, which crumbled in February 2017, but failed to take action to address the problem.  DWR allegedly went so far as to fabricate required maintenance reports. The complaint also alleges that a number of experts, including Professor Robert Bea of U.C. Berkeley, concluded that defects in the main spillway were compounded by ineffective inspections and maintenance over the years.

One of the plaintiffs in the case is Jem Farms, which claims that it sustained $15 million in damages due to flooding in its walnut orchards.  JEM farms lost approximately 27 acres of land to flooding.  It also lost walnut trees, which would have produced about 189,000 pounds of walnuts every year had they survived.

Niall McCarthy, of the Burlingame firm of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, one of the lead lawyers, said:  “Local businesses were hammered by the State’s recklessness.  Their losses continue to grow.  It is time to correct this injustice.”

Adam Shapiro, an associate at Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, stated:  “We have talked to a number of experts and former, high-level DWR employees.  As alleged in the complaint, they all agree that DWR failed to properly maintain that dam.”

David Janes, of the Woodland firm of Gardner, Janes, Nakken, Hugo and Nolan, co-lead counsel said, “Our farmer clients have suffered devastating losses, many of them have been put in financial jeopardy.”

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