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Monterey County Herald | Residents are starting to seek legal recourse after the Pajaro River floods

Rey Mashayekhi  Jul 13, 2023

In the wake of this winter’s devastating atmospheric rivers and resulting floods, residents in the hard-hit Pajaro Valley have set legal wheels in motion that could result in lawsuits against local government agencies.

Attorneys representing hundreds of Pajaro Valley residents have filed legal claims against Monterey and Santa Cruz counties – plus local agencies like the Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency and Monterey County Water Resources Agency, as well as state bodies like the Department of Fish and Wildlife and Caltrans – seeking compensation for damages they say were caused by inadequate government measures to prevent the flooding of the Pajaro River and its surrounding tributaries.

The initial claims were filed before the end of June, meeting a six-month deadline to submit for damages in the wake of an incident – in this case, storms and flooding that began on Dec. 31 and persisted through March, causing widespread damage to homes and businesses throughout the Pajaro Valley.

Attorney Brian Kabateck of Los Angeles-based Kabateck LLP – which is representing the claimants alongside another L.A. law firm, Greenberg and Ruby Injury Attorneys – says around 700 individuals are represented in the initial filings, which are seeking damages “far in excess of $10,000” per person. He notes that the claims are the first step required before moving for a potential lawsuit against the government agencies, which have 45 days to respond.

“By law, we’re required in most circumstances to file a claim with the government before we can sue them,” Kabateck says. He expects to commence mass-action lawsuits on behalf of his clients once the 45-day period passes, in the middle of August. Kabateck believes there are other law firms working on similar actions on behalf of clients also impacted by the floods.

Monterey County Counsel Les Girard says the claims are under assessment and declined to comment further. Santa Cruz County spokesperson Jason Hoppin confirms that the county has received the claims but declined to comment on potential litigation.

The filed claims blame the local and state agencies for failing to properly maintain the Pajaro River’s aging levees and flood control systems, which were completed in 1949 and will be rebuilt via a $400 million project that is set to commence in 2025. Kabateck notes that public officials were aware of the levee system’s “disrepair” and the risk it posed to surrounding communities, as evidenced by previous incidents like the 1995 Pajaro floods.

“They were certainly on notice that it was a dangerous situation,” he says, adding that authorities also failed to remove plants and other debris in the watershed that exacerbated flooding. “It was a case of negligence. If they had done what they were supposed to do, this never would have happened.”

The potential lawsuits, if filed, could take several years to work their way through the courts. Kabateck notes that most of his clients are working-class Pajaro Valley residents whose damages were not covered by insurance.

“It just seems that their safety was disregarded,” he says. “We want to send a message to the governments involved in this that they’ve got to take better care and pay attention.