Belair v. Riverside County Flood Control Dist., S001035

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Citation253 Cal.Rptr. 693,47 Cal.3d 550,764 P.2d 1070
Decision Date22 December 1988
Docket NumberNo. S001035,S001035
Parties, 764 P.2d 1070 Ronald H. BELAIR, et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. RIVERSIDE COUNTY FLOOD CONTROL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants and Respondents.
[764 P.2d 1071] Desmond, Miller, Desmond & Bartholomew, Richard F. Desmond, Gary Livaich, Sacramento, Redwine & Sherrill, Justin M. McCarthy, Riverside, Albert Levy, San Francisco, Gideon Kanner, Burbank, Retamal & Retamal, Sergio Retamal, Indio, and Marvin H. Jeglin, San Jacinto, for plaintiffs and appellants

Wasserman, Comden & Casselman, David B. Casselman, Elliot F. Borska, Tarzana, Mackenroth, Seley & Anwyl, Richard M. Jacobson, Sacramento, Diehl, Steinheimer, Riggio, Haydel & Mordaunt, Joseph H. Fargundes, Steven J. Weitzer, Stockton, Baker, Manock & Jensen, Douglas B. Jensen, John L.B. Smith, Fred A. Silva, Fresno, Meyers, Nave, Riback & West, Burlingame, Leslie Oster, San Francisco, and Natalie E. West, City Atty., Novato, as amici curiae on behalf of plaintiffs and appellants.

Thompson & Colegate, Riverside, Horvitz, Levy & Amerian, Barry R. Levy, Ellis J. Horvitz, Daniel J. Gonzalez, Encino, John K. Van de Kamp, Atty. Gen., Marvin Goldsmith, Asst. Atty. Gen., Jeffrey T. Miller and Randall B. Christison, Deputy Attys. Gen., for defendants and respondents.

Burton J. Goldstein, Goldstein, Barceloux & Goldstein, Janet A. Econome, San Francisco, Fadem, Berger & Norton, Michael M. Berger, Los Angeles, Downey, Brand, Seymour & Rohwer, George Basye, Kevin M. O'Brien and Martha H. Lennihan, Sacramento, as amici curiae on behalf of defendants and respondents.

KAUFMAN, Associate Justice.

When a flood control levee fails to retain waters within its design capacity, are plaintiff property owners who suffer damage from the resultant flooding entitled to recover on a theory of inverse condemnation without showing that the damage was caused by unreasonable conduct on the part of the defendant public entities? We conclude that in the case of an unintended breach of a flood control improvement, plaintiffs are not entitled to recover absent proof of such unreasonable conduct.


On the morning of February 21, 1980, a flood control levee on the left bank of the San Jacinto River located just downstream from its confluence with Bautista Creek gave way, freeing the river to flood parts of the City of San Jacinto. Several months later, 17 property owners damaged by the flood joined in filing a complaint in inverse condemnation against the Riverside County Flood Control District (District), which owned and operated the levee, as well as the State of California (State). The case was later consolidated with eight other like The cases proceeded to trial. At the close of plaintiffs' case, the District moved for judgment pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 631.8 (the State elected not to move for judgment under § 631.8). The trial court granted the motion but reserved its statement of decision until completion of the State's case-in-chief. The State put on its defense. The trial court thereafter issued statements of decision and entered judgment in favor of both the State and the District. Plaintiffs appealed.

[764 P.2d 1072] actions. Five of the individual plaintiffs' cases were selected for trial to the court, the parties stipulating that the judgment in these cases would be binding in all the other actions. Trial was bifurcated, with the issues of inverse condemnation and liability to be tried first, [47 Cal.3d 555] followed if necessary by trial of the remaining issues of damages and compensation. 1

The Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment on two separate grounds: 1) that there was no evidence the levee was the "proximate cause" of plaintiffs' damages, and 2) that defendants had not "substantially participated" in the design or construction of the levee so as to be subject to inverse condemnation liability. We granted plaintiffs' petition for review to determine the propriety of each facet of the Court of Appeal's decision. We subsequently granted leave to six separate groups representing over one hundred public agencies to file amicus curiae briefs on behalf of defendants.


The evidence adduced at trial as to the factual causes of the flood was relatively straightforward and undisputed. The levee failure followed a series of heavy storms over a period of several days. Expert testimony and a United States Army Corps of Engineers study undertaken after the flood revealed that the breach was caused by the undermining of the levee foundation or "toe" through a process of "scouring," i.e., the removal by water action of the foundation which underlay the levee. The scouring caused the rock-faced revetment on the riverward side of the levee to collapse, exposing the levee's sand foundation to the eroding force of the floodwaters. A breach appeared and water began to escape. Within a relatively short period, the original gap of 20 feet widened to approximately 1,500 feet, or a quarter of a mile, in length.

The scouring process was caused in part by the presence of two other levees in the area, a "Ring" levee on the right bank of Bautista Creek where it meets the San Jacinto River and a Bureau of Indian Affairs levee on the right bank of the San Jacinto River across from the District levee. The configuration of the three levees created a "flow impingement" which forced the channel waters to flow against the District levee at a 25-degree angle. The flow impingement caused deep scouring which undermined the levee toe and resulted in the failure. Both the Ring levee and the Bureau of Indian Affairs levee were constructed prior to the District levee. Neither was owned or operated by the District.

Plaintiffs never adduced any substantial evidence that defendants had acted unreasonably in the design, construction, operation or maintenance of the levee, or that plaintiffs' damages were caused by any act or failure to act on the part of defendants. Indeed, plaintiffs maintained that they were not required to prove the levee failure was the result of any act or omission of defendants. Plaintiffs asserted that inverse condemnation liability required proof only of the fact that the levee had failed to function within its design capacity, and that this failure caused their damages. In this regard, plaintiffs' evidence showed that the levee was designed and constructed to contain a "standard project storm" or flood discharge of 86,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). The maximum discharge at the time of the breach was approximately 25,000 cfs, well within the levee's design capacity.

Though the trial court issued separate statements of decision as to the State and the District, its findings on the issue of inverse condemnation liability were essentially identical. The trial court found, in pertinent part, as follows: "1. Plaintiffs incurred damage to their property, which was caused by an unintended breach in the project levee on February 21, 1980. [p ] 2. The design capacity of the project levee was a water flow of 86,000 cubic feet per second (CFS). At the time of the breach, the flow in the river channel was approximately 25,000 CFS and the project levee was operating as designed and constructed. [p ] 3. Plaintiffs' damages did not result from an overflow of channel waters in the San Jacinto River. Rather, the losses resulted from a failure in a portion of the project levee, by reason of a breach at a particular point in the levee which allowed the channel waters to escape the river channel and flow onto plaintiffs' property. The channel waters did not overtope [sic ] the levee." 2

The trial court's findings continued as follows: "[p ] 4. Before construction of the project levee in 1962, the land where plaintiffs' properties are situated were [sic] subject to periodic flooding by waters of the San Jacinto River. Such land is located within the area which is to be protected by the project levee from San Jacinto flood waters flowing at a maximum volume per second, namely 86,000 CFS. [p ] 5. Plaintiffs or their predecessors built businesses, structures, and/or conducted businesses and/or built homes and/or purchased homes and resided on such lands after 1962 and prior to February 21, 1980. They and their predecessors reasonably relied on the project levee containing the San Jacinto River waters within the river channel, at least to a volume capacity of 86,000 CFS. During such period they reasonably relied on the project levee not failing at any particular point so as to allow river waters to escape and flood their properties. In acting on such reliance, they made substantial expenditures of moneys and other material resources. [p ] 6. The project levee did not increase the risk of damage or impose any easement, servitude, or other burden on plaintiffs' property."

Notwithstanding the trial court's finding that the channel waters had not exceeded the levee's design capacity, the court concluded that the District was "neither a substantial concurring, nor a sole, independent cause of the ... breach in the project levee ..." and further concluded that the breach "was not a result of any act, omission or failure to act by the District in carrying out its operation and maintenance responsibilities...." As to the State, the trial court concluded that "no State conduct ... was a substantial contributing cause of [plaintiffs'] damages and losses."

Based on additional findings relating to defendants' respective participation in the planning, design, funding, construction, operation and maintenance of the levee, the trial court also concluded as a separate basis of decision that neither the District nor the State was a substantial participant in the levee project so as to be subject to inverse condemnation liability for plaintiffs' damages. (See Chatman v. County of Alameda Flood Control etc. Dist. (1986...

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