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CASE UPDATE: Private Property Owner Liable To County, Under Reasonableness Test, For Failing To Maintain Storm Drainage Channel Through Its Property In City of Richmond.

In Contra Costa County v. Pinole Point Properties, LLC (2015) 2015 WL 1544978, the court affirmed the trial court’s decision that a downstream property owner was liable for damages caused by its failure to maintain a drainage channel that crossed its property.  The subject property was owned by Pinole Point Properties and located along San Pablo Bay in the City of Richmond.  The subject property was undeveloped except for two main railroad berms and a few large drainage pipes under the berms, and the property contained an 8-foot wide by 6-foot deep drainage channel that flowed to the Bay.  Pinole Point Properties caused the drainage channel to become obstructed and nonfunctional by failing to maintain it and keep it clear of silt, vegetation and debris since it purposed the property 30 years ago.  (The prior owner of the property did do such maintenance.)  As a result, a large upstream storm drain pipe installed by Contra Costa County did not function as designed and the County was required to spend large sums of money in emergency flood protection efforts to protect a nearby residential neighborhood during large storm events.

The court of appeal affirmed the trial court’s application of the reasonableness test, which it explained as follows:

Upper property owners could be liable if they failed to exercise reasonable care in the use of their property so as to avoid injury to the adjacent property through the flow of surface waters….an uphill landowner, who altered the natural drainage of surface waters, could be liable for damages caused by the discharge of those waters onto adjacent property, under a reasonableness of conduct test….it is incumbent upon every person to take reasonable care in using his or her “property to avoid injury to adjacent property through the flow of surface waters. Failure to exercise reasonable care may result in liability by an upper to a lower landowner.  It is equally the duty of any person threatened with injury to his or her property by the flow of surface waters to take reasonable precautions to avoid or reduce any actual or potential injury…. Although not identical to a traditional negligence analysis, the central question to be determined under Keys is one of reasonableness of conduct.  (Citing Keys v. Romley (1966) 64 Cal.2d 396 (internal citations and quotations omitted).

When a public entity contributes to an increase in volume and velocity in a natural watercourse resulting in downstream property damage, the rule of reasonableness is stated this way:

A public entity may be liable for downstream damage caused by an increased volume or velocity of surface waters discharged into a natural watercourse from public works or improvements on publicly owned land. It will be liable if it fails to use reasonably available, less injurious alternatives, or if it has incorporated the watercourse into a public drainage system or otherwise converted the watercourse itself into a public work.  Such liability exists only if the agency acts unreasonably, with reasonableness determined by balancing the public benefit and private damage in each case. (Citing Locklin v. City of Lafayette (1994) 7 Cal.4th 327, 337-38 (internal citations and quotations omitted).)

The court of appeal affirmed the trial court’s determination that the drainage channel was a natural watercourse, that the County’s conduct with respect to its property had been reasonable, and that Pinole Point’s failure to maintain the drainage channel had been “entirely unreasonable” in light of its actual or constructive knowledge when purchasing the property of the existence of the drainage channel and the need to keep it clear of debris to prevent flooding to the adjacent homeowners.  The court of appeal also affirmed the trial court’s award of damages to the County and its order that Pinole Point clear and maintain the obstructed drainage channel.  The court of appeal rejected Pinole Point’s arguments that: 1) Pinole Point had no duty to maintain the drainage channel because it was a prescriptive easement; 2) The County was liable for a tortious (i.e. negligent) diversion of surface waters; and 3) The County was liable for inverse condemnation.

©2015 Miles J. Dolinger. This article is not intended to and does not constitute legal advice or a solicitation for the formation of an attorney-client relationship

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