Nine individuals or entities from Yuba-Sutter are suing the California Department of Water Resources for more than $27 million in damages suffered as a consequence of the Lake Oroville spillway crisis last February.

The action is part of a larger lawsuit involving more than 40 individuals or groups from around the North State that reportedly suffered more than $100 million in damages from the ordeal.

Adam Shapiro, associate attorney with Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, LLP out of the Bay Area, said plaintiffs include people who were forced to evacuate as well as local businesses, homeowners and farmers who lost property as a result of the spillway incident. 

“The state and DWR were notified of the problems with the dam, and had been for quite some time prior to the incident. They pursued inadequate maintenance, and in many ways made it worse through those efforts,” Shapiro said. “As a result of the state’s negligence, our clients, who were significantly impacted and suffered damages from the incident, are seeking compensation.” 

The civil lawsuit filed Jan. 31 alleges the spillway incident was caused by decades of mismanagement and intentional lack of maintenance by DWR. The state department has a culture of corruption and harassment, the suit alleges, and DWR was focused more on profits from water sales than on public safety.

Erin Mellon, assistant director of Public Affairs for DWR, said the state department cannot comment on pending litigation.

Local plaintiffs

All of the local parties involved in the civil suit had filed a claim with the state over the situation but were denied. Each of them claimed that “flooding, seepage, high water, excessive flows and abrupt and erratic releases of high volumes of water from the dam” in addition to DWR’s “wrongful conduct”resulted in losses to their property.

The biggest local claim is for Jaswinder and Gurinder Bains – of the Bains Brothers Farms – who are seeking more than $20 million in damages. According to the lawsuit, the Bainses – who are mentioned as plaintiffs twice in the lawsuit – suffered lost acreage, lost production, tree replacement costs and loss of production life of trees. On top of that, they reportedly suffered the loss of use of their property for the nearly 180 acres that were destroyed due to flooding along the Feather River. 

The next biggest claim was from Brush Hardwoods, which harvests walnut burls at a field in Marysville along the Yuba River, seeking $5 million or more for damages sustained. The lawsuit alleges Brush Hardwoods had 324 acres of burls and logs that were ready to be harvested when it became inundated with 15 feet of water. The burls and logs that were already cut washed away into the Yuba River as well.

Other Yuba-Sutter plaintiffs who reported suffering losses to trees and farm property include: Forrest Miller (at least $80,000 in damages), Tom Miller Jr. (at least $951,500 in damages) and Jeffrey E. Dyer (at least $900,000 in damages).

Sutter County resident Douglas G. Nareau sustained structural damage to his house, floors and foundation, as well as a loss of use of real property. He is seeking at least $45,000 in damages.

Lastly, Nicoli Nicholas and Nicoli Nicholas Jr. – both farmers and ranchers in south Sutter County – reported suffering losses due to being forced to evacuate hundreds of cattle, tons of hay, as well as other farming and ranching equipment and machinery. Nicholas reported at least $150,000 in damages, and Nicholas Jr. reported at least $100,000.

In addition to the losses on their farm, the Nicholases reportedly suffered the loss of cattle – at least 130 calves – that died after the cows contracted a virus while at a different pasture during the evacuation.

Next steps

Shapiro’s team and another law firm out of Woodland comprise the legal team spearheading the effort. This is the second lawsuit filed by the two firms – the first being a lawsuit filed against DWR on behalf of the city of Oroville earlier this year.

David Janes, a partner with Gardner, Janes, Nakken, Hugo & Nolan, said the civil suit will likely be a lengthy process taking years to iron out. 

Now that the lawsuit has been filed, he said the state has 30 days to file its response to the complaints. Then, the discovery process will play out where both parties will go over the facts of the case. If the case isn’t dropped or a settlement isn’t agreed upon by then, a trial would likely follow.

“We know we are going to face some contentions,” Janes said. “It was a wet year, there is no denying that. However, a lot of these folks with orchards have been farming that land for many years, and those orchards didn’t suffer the same type of losses in 1997 or 1986 when there was flooding, but they sure did in 2017.”

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