Flooding off East Lake Avenue in Watsonville
Flooding off East Lake Avenue in Watsonville in January.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Storms 2023: Road to Recovery

Winter’s floodwaters have receded in the Pajaro Valley, leaving behind fertile ground for lawsuits

As in the wake of flooding that hit the Pajaro Valley in 1995, an ugly and protracted litigation phase appears to be ramping up following this winter’s disaster, with residents of Watsonville among hundreds pursuing claims against a variety of local and state entities.

This story was originally featured in this week’s In the Public Interest newsletter from Christopher Neely. Be the first to hear about politics and policy news in Santa Cruz County — sign up for Christopher’s email newsletter here.

The first floodwaters that poured into her home on Dec. 31 shocked Watsonville resident Maria Teresa Fuentes, who knew the rain was abnormally heavy but never expected a flood. She, as many others that evening, evacuated rather than celebrating New Year’s Eve. Fuentes and her family moved into a hotel and hoped for minimal damage from the knee-high deluge.

That same night, Watsonville resident Sonia Corrales had already escaped her flooded Anderson Road home and relocated her three children, two siblings and parents to a nearby hotel room by the time she received an evacuation order from the government.

The winter floods seemed to never relent. During the March 10 storm that would eventually overwhelm the Pajaro River levee, Fuentes said her home flooded for a sixth time, Corrales’ home a fourth. Initial frustration and inconvenience evolved into pain and substantial property and emotional damage. They felt abandoned by their government and wanted it to pay for what they saw as its failure.

Separately, they each began searching for attorneys.

The winter’s historic rains and catastrophic floods drew visits from President Joe Biden, Gov. Gavin Newsom, members of the U.S. Congress, state legislators, international media and aid organizations. For a moment, the nation’s eyes appeared to be upon the Central Coast. Local governments examined holes in their own disaster response. Leaders promised to do better.

Yet despite the ongoing recovery, much of that attention has since moved on. Now, just as after the floods that hit the region in 1995, it appears the ugly and protracted litigation phase of this disaster is upon us.

“No matter how you feel about the [potential] lawsuits, there are a lot of families who are hurting right now and just not getting the assistance they need,” said Tony Nuñez, communications director for local aid organization Community Bridges. “What else are they going to do?”

Following the levee failure, local and out-of-town law firms converged upon Pajaro. Localized advertisements and word of mouth made it well known that attorneys were taking cases. Initially, Corrales said 10 to 15 law firms refused her case because her traumatic experiences happened in Watsonville rather than Pajaro, where the government’s liability in the disaster was more clear-cut and garnered national media attention.

Marina Pacheco, an attorney with Los Angeles-based law firm Kabateck LLP, traveled with a team to Pajaro “as soon as we could” after learning of the levee failure. With boots on the ground at the disaster’s epicenter, the firm’s attorneys listened to stories of emotional trauma, property damage and government negligence related to the Pajaro catastrophe.

Then, unexpectedly, Pacheco’s team began hearing other stories from people on the north side of the Pajaro River, such as Corrales and Fuentes. People talked about similar damage but from storms stretching back to December. After Corrales walked the streets with Kabateck’s attorneys, she said lawyers from the firm asked her to write a statement; they were interested. Fuentes said they told her these kinds of lawsuits work best with as many plaintiffs as possible.

“When I heard about some lawyers who were [in Pajaro], I went quickly,” Fuentes said. “And I asked them, ‘Can you help us?’ and they told me, ‘Yes, but it’s important that you unite your neighbors.’”

Corrales and Fuentes began working their communities, door-to-door, and convinced dozens more residents to join.

Flooding in a neighborhood off East Lake Avenue in Watsonville in January.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Represented by Pacheco’s team, Corrales and Fuentes are now two of hundreds of Watsonville and Pajaro-area residents preparing to sue the City of Watsonville, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, Caltrans and the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife to hold them responsible for a list of damages that extends well beyond the realm of insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance. As of Wednesday, Pacheco says more than 730 claims were filed in Monterey County Superior Court against the governments, the first step in what she expects to become a mass-action lawsuit.

An L.A. law firm arriving into town after a highly publicized natural disaster and taking on hundreds of cases on behalf of vulnerable residents initially drew some suspicions. Predatory behavior is known to abound following catastrophe. Immediately after displaced Pajaro residents returned home from the flooding, so too did the people looking to make easy money off the exposed community. However, Henry Martin, an attorney with the nonprofit Watsonville Law Center, said community organizers working in the area contacted Kabateck to vet the firm and ensure its legitimacy. Martin said Kabateck passed the smell test.

In Martin’s experience, Kabateck’s approach has become fairly standard due to the cost of going to court and the competitive legal landscape following a mass disaster.

“This probably says something negative about our civil justice system as a whole but it’s pretty normal behavior,” Martin said. “To a layperson, there is nothing about a well-resourced L.A. law firm coming into Pajaro to carry hundreds of civil cases against the government that sounds right. But the weird thing is that this is normal.”

Although Martin told Lookout that people are well within reason to be skeptical of the practice, he said no one should be surprised by the lawsuit.

“Everyone knew there was a problem with the levees, the counties knew lawsuits were coming since day one of the disaster,” Martin said. “Now, we’re witnessing the natural consequences of that.”

Caltrans and Santa Cruz and Monterey counties fought a similar mass-action lawsuit following the Pajaro River levee breach in 1995. That case could shed light on how this one will play out.

The arguments from the governments were similar to those of today: The infrastructure was designed to hold only so much water, and the historic rain levels overwhelmed the system. A jury found the three government agencies liable for specific percentages of the damage. Although estimates for the payouts were in the tens of millions of dollars, it is unclear how much the 225 plaintiffs received.

“The only reason we got into this lawsuit was because we don’t want it to happen again. We want the agencies to perform their duty to the community,” Pajaro Valley farmer Karen Miller told the Santa Cruz Sentinel in 1995.

Nearly 20 years later, Fuentes echoed that same sentiment from her home in Watsonville. Speaking Spanish through an interpreter, she said she is suing to make government agencies accountable to the community they forgot and ensure this never happens again. She hopes to get paid $500,000 for her damages.

“No one came to help, we don’t exist for anyone,” Fuentes said.

The community of Pajaro in Monterey County was flooded after the Pajaro River breached its levee.
The community of Pajaro was flooded in March after the Pajaro River breached its levee during an atmospheric river.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Pacheco said the claims in Pajaro are grounded in the now highly publicized failure of the governments to reinforce a levee that they, for decades, knew would fail. However, she said the claims allege that local and state governments also failed Watsonville residents by not maintaining and clearing debris from the Salsipuedes and Corralitos creeks, which helped aggravate the flooding. Pacheco said governments often fight these kinds of cases, and she expects the cases to go to court.

James Chen, a law professor at Michigan State University who has written on the legal process around lawsuits following natural disasters, said that the jury’s decision in 1995 will play an important role nearly three decades later if the cases go to court.

“If a previous jury told the governments they have a responsibility to maintain a levee to a certain degree of care, then that’s pretty strong evidence against them,” Chen said. “If the court has found you responsible once, then these lawsuits shouldn’t come as a surprise.”

Although there is not clear local precedent for Watsonville residents’ cases, Chen said it could still be a strong case, especially if there is evidence that maintaining the creeks is a known good practice to reduce flood risk and the plaintiffs can prove the governments knew and failed to do this.

The individual claims, which are the first step toward a lawsuit against the government, began trickling in around June 28. The government agencies will have 45 days to investigate the claim and decide whether they want to settle. If they reject the claim, which Pacheco expects them to do, it clears the path for what will likely be a yearslong battle in court.

Lookout made multiple unsuccessful attempts to contact Watsonville and Santa Cruz County officials for comment.