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Mudslide victims file lawsuits against SoCal Edison - KSBY.com | San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Area News

Mudslide victims file lawsuits against SoCal Edison

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Lawsuits from those impacted by the mudslides in southern Santa Barbara County are beginning to pile up against Southern California Edison.  They claim the utility company's negligence sparked the Thomas Fire and resulting damage on Jan. 9, 2018. 

Lalo Barajas, whose life partner Peter Fleurat died when their home was swept away in the mudslide, announced the filing of one of the lawsuits on Thursday.  

"If I had Peter and this happened, I'd be okay, but I don't have him," Barajas said.  

He says the lawsuit filed is about holding SoCal Edison accountable and moving on and that the money isn't important.  

"Whatever normal is, it's not going to be with him but I want to make this place a beautiful place like it was before, the house, the way we had it," Barajas said.

Barajas' lawyers feel confident in their case, too.  

"The courts have told us that Edison is liable under inverse condemnation for the damages caused, not just here, but in other situations up and down the state," said Joseph Liebman, a Santa Barbara real estate attorney. "In an inverse condemnation case you, do not need to prove that. What you need to prove in this case is that Edison's equipment, it's electrical grid, caused the fire and that the fire is caustically connected to the debris flow.  Our experts have already consulted with us and have advised us that that causal connection is existing and can be established in court."

Barajas is just one of many who survived while losing a loved one.

"All of a sudden the water hit our house and the house dropped about four feet and literally broke in half," said Carie Corey-Baker, describing the wall of water and debris that destroyed the home she shared with her three daughters, Morgan, 25, and twins Sawyer and Summer, 12. 

She described how Morgan came into her bedroom just minutes before the debris, which eventually swept them both away, hit their home.  

"Morgan and I flew down the creek together holding hands, screaming.  She looked at me and said, 'what do I do, mom?' I'll never forget her face and the fear in her eyes looking at me so petrified... and eventually, Morgan went under water and our hands broke free... I didn't see her again," she said.  

Corey-Baker says she lost consciousness before traveling another half mile, eventually breaking through the window of a home downstream and being pulled to safety by the homeowners.

"I didn't know if any of my girls were around or survived," she said.  

She would later find out Morgan and Sawyer had died in the destruction.

Like Barajas' lawyers, Corey-Baker's representatives are confident in their filings and say they are aware of the ongoing investigation into the origin of the Thomas Fire.  

"There's witnesses, there's a lot of other information that's available to us that it's given us evidence and proof that Edison was responsible for starting the Thomas Fire," said Rahul Ravipudi, an attorney with Panish Shea & Boyle LLP.  "Not at just one location but at a couple of locations.  The resulting harm and the catastrophe and resulting mudslides is all related to that."

KSBY reached out to Southern California Edison regarding the lawsuit and received this statement:
"The Thomas Fire has obviously had an impact on many individuals, but the origin and cause of the fire continue to be under investigation and no report has yet been issued.  This and other lawsuits are not based on findings related to an investigation.  Therefore, it would be premature for SCE to comment on the origin or cause of the wildfire."

A venue for the lawsuits has not yet been chosen.  Some lawyers, like Brian Panish, who is part of the team representing Corey-Baker, would like to see the cases heard in Los Angeles.  

"It's pretty clear that the whole matter will have to be in one court.  There could be 10 to 15,000 cases and that's a lot for one court to handle," Panish said.

He argues that the resources in Los Angeles County would be needed, and that Santa Barbara County would be burdened by the massive strain.  

Others, like Peter Bezek, who is part of the team representing Barajas, said, "We think that is a terrible result to the victims that we represent and the families that we represent."

A hearing on Monday will be argued in Ventura County Superior Court to decide where the cases will be held.

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