Flooding in Pajaro after a breach of the Pajaro River levee
Flooding in Pajaro after the March breach of the Pajaro River levee.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Storms 2023: Road to Recovery

Watsonville, Pajaro residents send warning shot as winter flood lawsuits against governments appear imminent

The City of Watsonville, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties and a number of local and state agencies have been named in claims made by hundreds of residents on both sides of the Pajaro River, according to the Los Angeles-based firm representing them; those claims are a precursor for a potential mass-action lawsuit.

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Hundreds of Watsonville and Pajaro-area residents are revving up for a lawsuit against local government agencies, arguing their negligence played a role in the damage caused by the string of winter floods between Dec. 31 and March 11.

The City of Watsonville, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, Pajaro Regional Flood Management Agency, Santa Cruz County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, Monterey County Water Resources Agency, California Department of Transportation, California Department of Fish and Wildlife and California Fish and Game Commission are all named in the claims, according to Kabateck LLP, the Los Angeles-based firm representing the more than 700 claimants.

The claims are a precursor for a potential mass-action lawsuit against the government agencies, says Marina Pacheco, an attorney with Kabateck.

The claims are divided between those who suffered damages from the flooding of the Pajaro River and Corralitos and Salsipuedes creeks in January, and those harmed by the failure of the Pajaro River levee on March 11.

In California, people cannot sue the government without first filing a claim and giving the government a chance to settle. According to Pacheco, there is a six-month window from the time of the personal injury or personal property damage to file a claim, which is why they began funneling in last week. Through this process, residents claim they were injured by the government inaction and are thus owed compensation.

The governments have 45 days to investigate and respond. If they reject the claim, it opens the doors for residents to begin filing lawsuits. Pacheco says she expects to continue filing claims related to the Pajaro River levee breach through the next two months.

Pacheco says governments often fight these claims and she expects the cases to go to court; however, she says the complaints will likely be wrapped up into a single mass-action tort. Whereas a class-action lawsuit groups many plaintiffs into a single lawsuit, a mass-action tort is when the many plaintiffs bring individual lawsuits against defendants.

Lookout was unable to reach the various government agencies named in the lawsuit.

According to one claim against the government shared with Lookout, the residents are seeking relief for 29 categories for damages, including lost wages, property damage, emotional distress, increased expenses and deprivation of economic benefits of private property.

Watsonville resident Sonia Corrales said she was in her home preparing for a New Year’s Eve celebration when water began rushing through her doors, forcing her, her three children, parents and two siblings to evacuate to a nearby hotel. It was only after they settled into a hotel and their home was underwater that they received an evacuation order from the City of Watsonville.

“I feel like more could have been done to maintain the waterways,” Corrales told Lookout. “If there would have been proper maintenance, then it would not have happened the way it happened. There was no county officials or law enforcement officers making sure people in my neighborhood were OK. We expect some support from the government but none was given.”

Corrales said she found Kabateck only after getting rejected by several other law firms mining the disaster-stricken community for potential cases.

Pacheco said Kabateck rushed to the region after hearing about the catastrophe and set up community meetings and outreach to hear people’s stories and whether they could find an avenue for a lawsuit against the government.

It is unclear whether Kabateck is the only firm still working toward a mass-action lawsuit against the government.

Tony Nuñez, communications manager for nonprofit Community Bridges who was helping with relief following the floods, said he heard whispers of other firms gathering information for cases early on, but is unsure whether they’ve materialized. He called the prospect of lawsuits “unsurprising.”

“I think the victims will have a pretty strong case,” Nuñez said. “The effort to sue doesn’t surprise me, both because of the strength of the case but also because people are really hurting right now. A lot of the community was already only hanging on by a thread.”