San Jose residents who suffered through a disastrous flood enjoyed a significant courtroom victory just weeks before the five-year anniversary of the catastrophe that upended their lives.
Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Sunil Kulkarni struck down a motion for summary judgment on Jan. 27 filed by Valley Water. The district filed its motion in an attempt to dismiss consolidated litigation filed by a group of more than 250 San Jose residents who claim the district failed to take adequate flood control measures around Coyote Creek, resulting in a massive flood after rains breached Anderson Dam in 2017.
Barring a settlement, the case is headed to trial on May 9.
“The judge completely wiped them out,” said San Jose resident Ted Smith, whose son temporarily lost his house in the flood; Smith’s wife represents some of the plaintiffs. “It’s a game changer, we think.”
Kulkarni ruled Valley Water “doomed” its motion by failing to offer evidence of how Anderson Dam operated as a flood control project before the 2017 storm, and how that operational plan was not faulty. Kulkarni also rejected Valley Water’s claim that due to a drought before the storm, the district’s overall strategy was to maximize water storage.
“If in the end, (Valley Water) operated the Dam/Reservoir according to an unreasonable plan before and during the flood, and if this was a substantial cause of harm to plaintiffs, (Valley Water) may well be liable,” Kulkarni wrote in his ruling. “These questions are for a jury to decide.”
Valley Water spokesperson Matt Keller told San José Spotlight the district is evaluating its options after the court’s ruling.
“It’s unfortunate that some have had to deal with the flooding and a long legal process,” Keller said. “Valley Water plans to continue engaging in good-faith settlement discussions as we prepare for trial in early May. Valley Water would like this process to end as quickly and fairly as possible for all parties.”
Valley Water’s new board chair, Gary Kremen, did not return calls for comment.
The lawsuit arose from a flood that started on Feb. 18, 2017. Heavy rainfall caused the Anderson Dam south of San Jose to overflow, resulting in what Valley Water refers to as a 20-year-flood that displaced 14,000 people in three neighborhoods and inflicted roughly $100 million in damages.
Last November, the San Jose City Council approved a $750,000 settlement with the plaintiffs who claimed the city failed to warn them about flood dangers. Valley Water did not settle and the lawsuit has dragged on.
Valley Water, which manages the watershed containing Coyote Creek, has received 423 claims to date, according to its latest financial report. The district settled 162 claims in September 2019 for approximately $700,000. It’s unclear how much the district has spent defending itself from the flood.
The district has refused to settle the consolidated lawsuit, leaving many residents unable to move on with their lives since 2018.
The flood ruined the foundation of Teresa Pedrizco’s home, forcing her family to move. Repairing the house will cost approximately $400,000. In the meantime, she is paying both rent for her current home and mortgages on her vacant house.
“It’s unfortunate the litigation is still ongoing because I don’t have the funds to finish the house,” Pedrizco told San José Spotlight. “I don’t know for how long we’re going to be displaced.”
Valley Water is working on several projects to reduce flooding in neighborhoods near Coyote Creek. Keller noted the Coyote Creek Flood Management Measures Project and the Coyote Creek Flood Protection Project extend across nine miles and include plans for flood walls, passive barriers, berms or new levees. The projects are expected to be completed in the end of 2023 and 2025, respectively.
“Since 2017, Valley Water has implemented several short-term projects to reduce the risk of flooding along Coyote Creek,” Keller said. The district has taken steps to protect neighborhoods hit by the 2017 flood, including the installation of an interim flood wall and berm along the creek in Rock Springs, repairing a 150-foot levee near South Bay Mobile Home Park and installing flood gauges along the creek.
Smith recalls helping evacuate his granddaughter from his son’s house as the flood waters entered the home. He said he’s never seen a scorched earth litigation strategy like the one employed by Valley Water, adding the litigation has dragged on so long that some plaintiffs have died or dropped out of the suit.
“To use those tactics against poor people who are trying to get by is really unconscionable, particularly for a public agency,” Smith told San José Spotlight. “The district has been saying now through their board members and CEO, ‘Oh we want a prompt and fair settlement’—what a crock that has been.”
Editor’s Note: Valley Water CEO Rick Callender is on San José Spotlight’s board of directors.