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  • Landslide Damage

  • A landslide is the downslope movement of a mass of rock, debris, or soil. This frequently occurs during periods of heavy rain, which certainly doesn’t mean that the landslide was an “act of God” or of natural causes. Landslides are often caused by human forces beyond the victim landowner’s control, thus resulting in liability on the part of the one who caused the damages. The landslide in question may occur on the victim landowner’s property or a landslide can move onto the victim’s land from the property of another ­ which also causes harm. Given a cause by a person, corporation or government­ multiple causes of action can come into play. These causes of action include nuisance, trespass, negligence, inverse condemnation and dangerous condition of public property. If a landslide is caused by one’s failure to follow a law such as a grading ordinance, the action can be elevated to a “per se” action, or liability without proof of fault: this is much easier to prove in court. Inverse condemnation and dangerous condition of public property actions can be brought against a government, governmental entity, or quasi­-governmental entity such as a privately owned utility company.


    When gravitational and other types of shear stresses within a slope exceed the shear strength (resistance to shearing, or breaking away) of the materials that form the slope, landslides can occur. Shear stresses can build up in a slope by several processes. These processes include over­steepening of the base of the slope, such as by natural erosion, or excavation caused by grading / earthwork. Loading of the slope (making the mass heavier) such as by an inflow of water, a rise in the groundwater table, or the accumulation of debris on the slope’s surface can all cause landslides. Water, in some way, is almost always involved with a landslide, whether by water infusion into the soil mass, or by water erosion. An adjoining, or even distant landowner can cause water to flow onto the surface or subsurface of your property ­ resulting in a landslide. A river or stream can flow across land causing a land failure, or such flow can undercut the base of a slope resulting in a landslide.


    Any underground pipe which carries water or sewage and then fails, can result in the saturation and/or erosion of subsurface soils, or the creation of subsurface cavities, and cause a landslide. If the failing pipe is owned or operated by a person, corporation, government or quasi­-governmental agency such as a private utility company, liability can be established.


    Earthquakes can be a contributing factor as well, and need to be considered if a land area is simply weakened and thus vulnerable to a future land ­failure. Even in such a case as mere vulnerability being caused, the affected property can suffer a loss of value which can then become the measure of damages in a lawsuit. If an actual landslide occurs, legal damages can be measured either by the cost-of­ repair in nuisance cases, and the loss of property value in inverse condemnation cases.


    A frequently overlooked consequence of a landslide, is the loss of trees. Tree values can run into the tens of thousands of dollars each, and special laws allow for a multiplied measure of damages for tree losses. If the cause of tree losses is negligence, the measure of damages is doubled, and if the cause of tree losses is intentional the measure of damages is tripled.


    Landslides can result in massive costs of repair or tremendous losses in value. If a landslide occurs, it is critical that the victim landowner immediately contact an attorney who is competent in this very technical area. Statutes of limitation (time limits on the filing of a claim or lawsuit) can be very short. If the considered action is against a government, a tort claim must be filed and rejected (formally or by lapse of time), before an actual lawsuit can be filed. Failure to timely file a tort claim in an action vs. a government is usually fatal to the cause of action. It is of utmost importance that an attorney who is fluent in the sciences of geology and hydrology, as well as engineering ­be retained. In addition, the attorney who is employed must be familiar with the intricacies of the causes of action being employed. The technical and legal knowledge of the attorney must be woven together, and the nuances of both must be addressed.