Second lawsuit over flood damages in Merced is filed against state and local agencies

December 15, 2023
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
by Jesse Vad, SJV Water
A flooded neighborhood south of Atwater in Merced County. SCREEN GRAB / Merced County Facebook page
Jesse Vad, SJV Water
Jesse Vad, SJV Water

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Another lawsuit is moving forward against the state and local agencies over flood damage to homes and businesses in Merced County. 

In the latest filing, 13 residents and business owners are suing the County of Merced, Merced Irrigation District, the City of Merced, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the California Fish and Game Commission for damages caused by devastating floods in January, 2023. 

Attorney Shant Karnikian, partner at Kabatech LLP, who is representing the plaintiffs, expects to add about 750 more people to the lawsuit over time. The lawsuit is kicking off with a small number of plaintiffs so as not to delay and overwhelm the court system, he said. 

The lawsuit also targets a broad range of agencies on purpose, he said. It’s very possible that all the responsibility could sit with one agency and the rest will be dismissed later on. But the lawsuit will be kept broad initially until attorneys determine who is at fault through the discovery process, he said. 

This latest lawsuit follows another lawsuit in which Merced County farmers claim the state Department of Fish and Wildlife delayed maintenance permits for more than five years, leading to clogged up waterways and ultimately breaks in levees. 

“The next step here is to request information, look at the documents, then take the depositions of the key players and find out what they did, what they didn’t do, when they did it, what they knew, what they didn’t know and kind of sort things out and see how it all shakes out,” said Karnikian.

Waterways overtopped and broke through levees in Merced County on January 10 after heavy rain. The floods hit multiple areas, including the small town of Planada where nearly every household took water. 

Determining exactly how much the payout could be from this lawsuit is a challenge. 

One component is strictly related to property damage and losses. 

But there’s also a very personal side to what happened to residents.

“Folks are entitled to compensation for the distress and the inconvenience and the grief and anxiety associated with evacuating, relocating, sometimes being homeless for an extended period of time and just being out of your house and having to take care of your kids in very uncomfortable settings,” said Karnikian. “That’s a compensable part of these claims. And it’s hard to put a dollar figure on that.” 

Tony Borba’s experience sums up that distress and grief. Borba is retired and lives in the unincorporated McSwain area of Merced County with his wife and disabled son. He is one of the 13 plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

When floodwaters hit his home at 2:30 a.m., it rose fast. 

“My first thought was to get my son out of the house,” said Borba. 

Borba and his wife lifted their son, Chris, in a chair and were able to wade through the rising water to their van in the back of the house. 

“If I hadn’t got Chris early enough into that other room, I would never have gotten him out,” said Borba. 

Then van got stuck. Borba had to leave his wife and son in the van to go back to the house and get his truck. At that point the water was past Borba’s knees. 

Using his truck and chains he was able to pull the van out. Borba took his family to their other son’s house in nearby Atwater where they lived for the next four months. 

Every piece of furniture in the Borbas’ house was destroyed and the entire house had to be ripped apart, said Borba. The floors had to be redone and the walls torn apart to take out the sheetrock. Borba has never had flood insurance. Rebuilding cost Borba $100,000 out of his savings. FEMA offered him $10,000. 

“It was hard on us,” said Borba. “I just just hope we can get our money back.”

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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