Legal actions on behalf of San Joaquin Valley flood victims piling up

November 8, 2023
Lisa McEwen and Jesse Vad, SJV Water
by Lisa McEwen and Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Josh Diaz holds bags of soggy insulation to show Woodlake city officials the flood damage his home suffered during a meeting in March 2023. Jesse Vad / SJV Water
Lisa McEwen and Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Lisa McEwen and Jesse Vad, SJV Water

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Nearly 10 months after floods devastated parts of Planada and Woodlake, residents in both small towns have banded together, hired attorneys and are pursuing legal action. More than 250 households are involved between the two towns. 

Residents in the Tulare County town of Springville are also working toward legal action after flooding knocked out wells and residents suffered prolonged water shortages. The attorney for Springville residents did not respond to requests for comment. 

It’s early stages for the legal battles, which aren’t technically lawsuits yet for either Woodlake nor Planada, said Shant Karnikian, partner at Kabateck LLP who is representing residents in both towns. Karnikian is also representing residents in the hard hit town of Pajaro on the central coast. 

The first stage of the process is notifying all entities of the allegations and giving time for a response, he said. Those entities can accept the allegations and work out compensation, which Karnikian said he’s never seen happen. They can also outright reject the claim or let 45 days pass without responding which qualifies as a rejection. 

Residents won’t necessarily be filing lawsuits against all entities that have been presented with the allegations, said Karnikian. 

For example, in Planada, residents presented claims to a variety of small water districts as a precautionary measure because if claims aren’t presented within six months, you’re forever barred from making claims against those entities. 

“In an abundance of caution, we cast a wider net in making these allegations. And we’re still investigating, doing public records requests, some things like that to try to figure out who we have a stronger case against, who really looks like is the culpable party and then that’s who we’ll be filing suit against,” said Karnikian. “It’s really not clear right now who that is, but probably closer to the end of the year we will be filing suit against who we believe is possibly culpable.” 

In Woodlake, where multiple neighborhoods were flooded in the northwest part of town, residents claim a new development, which rerouted a creek, made flooding worse in the lower, older surrounding neighborhoods. 

Woodlake city staff have publicly refuted that claim and said their models show flooding would have been the same even if the development hadn’t been built. 

But that’s not a convincing argument for residents who lost homes and have been displaced for months. 

Residents also allege that infrastructure, such as flood gates, were not properly maintained and did not function during the storms, making flooding significantly worse. 

Both accusations will make up the bulk of residents’ arguments in Woodlake. 

Josh Diaz, a high school teacher and resident of Woodlake, has been one of the most outspoken people in town about the flooding. Diaz’s house was inundated with water, forcing him and his wife to evacuate with their children, ages 8 and 4, through a bedroom window the morning the floods hit on March 10. 

“I just tried to keep calm for the kids, and to get my family to higher ground,” said Diaz. “At first I thought half of Woodlake must have been flooded, but no, it was just our area. I would say our area was hit the hardest.” 

Josh Diaz in his living room in Woodlake. Diaz’s house was inundated with more than three feet of flood water. He is beginning the process of ripping out all the carpets and part of the drywall to repair the damage in this March 2023 photo. Jesse Vad / SJV Water

The family lost electronics, appliances, toys, books, clothes and furniture. They also had to completely renovate the house because of the damage to the floors and walls. The family received $14,000 from FEMA and used $12,000 in savings for repairs. Diaz also received nearly $5,000 in assistance from other programs and donations. 

Diaz appealed to the Woodlake City Council and Tulare County but was shut down and felt ignored. At that point, he felt the need to take legal action. 

“I hope it brings closure to many of the folks who were impacted, and with all sincerity, for the issues to be fixed,” said Diaz. 

It took months for Diaz and other residents to find an attorney to represent them. 

“Our firm is sort of well versed and experienced in handling mass disasters and pursuing claims against the parties that are sometimes responsible for natural disasters,” said Karnikian. “Sometimes you have what one would call just purely an act of God like an earthquake, you can’t really sue anyone over an earthquake, nobody caused an earthquake. But something like these floods, we believe, are preventable.”

When Karnikian saw how disruptive this winter was for people in the flooded towns and he heard their stories, he felt they had viable claims. 

Karnikian’s firm represented residents in the 2018 Woolsey fire in Los Angeles, the Camp Fire and is currently representing residents affected by the wildfires in Hawaii. 

These will not be class action lawsuits, said Karnikian, referring to the flooding claims. Instead, everyone’s damages in the flooded towns are individualized. Everyone suffered differently and will be seeking damages for different impacts. 

But because there could be so many lawsuits, they will likely be coordinated, said Karnikian. 

It could proceed with a few test cases that go to trial to determine amounts for certain types of damages. And those verdicts could inform other similar cases to decide what each case’s damages are worth. 

It could also turn into one big settlement where all the money would go into a pot and the residents would decide how to divy it up, all overseen by the courts, said Karnikian. 

The process is not quick however. It usually takes up to three to five years, said Karnikian. 

I think it’s important that people participate in the process like this. And in our civil justice system, this is how one seeks justice. This is how you bring about change,” said Karnikian. “We’ll see how the process shakes out.”

Lisa McEwen and Jesse Vad, SJV Water

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


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