Family sues state, city, others over Encinitas bluff collapse that killed three
An Encinitas woman, her mother and her mother’s sister died in the August 2019 collapse at Grandview Beach
The family of three women killed when a bluff collapsed at an Encinitas beach last year filed a wrongful death lawsuit Wednesday, Aug. 26, naming the city, the state and entities tied to the condo complex land overlooking the state beach where the sandstone slid.
The suit alleges negligence and dangerous conditions at the property where the Aug. 2, 2019 collapse happened along a stretch of bluff at Grandview Beach, at the bottom of a steep set of stairs.
At a news conference outside the Vista courthouse Wednesday, Aug. 26, attorney Deborah Chang, who represents the families, called the weakened cliff “a ticking time bomb.”
“It wasn’t a question if something was going to happen, but when,” Chang said. “And that time bomb is still ticking today.”
She and the families argue that the danger remains, and showed a picture of several sunbathers and beach towels at the base of the cliffs, the exact site of the collapse. The photo was taken late last month.
The named defendants in the suit, filed in the Vista branch of San Diego Superior Court, are the California Department of Parks and Recreation, which owns the land, and the city of Encinitas, which manages it.
Defendants also include Leucadia Seabluffe Village Community Association, Inc., which is the homeowners association managing condos at the top of the cliff, and Seabreeze Management Company, Inc. which handles the property management.
Seabreeze CEO Isaiah Henry said Wednesday afternoon that the company “offers its deepest sympathies to the families of the deceased for their loss.” He also said the company will participate in the lawsuit with its attorneys, but declined further comment on the ongoing legal action.
A statement from the homeowners association said, in part, that it it learned of the lawsuit through news reports. We are working with our counsel to understand the lawsuit, and how it claims we are involved in this tragic event,” the statement reads.
State parks officials declined comment and the city of Encinitas did not immediately provide comment.
Aside from the suit, the deaths also prompted proposed state legislation that, had it passed, would have required the California Coastal Commission to approve projects designed to protect against coastal erosion in Orange and San Diego counties.
Earlier this year, state Sen. Patricia Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, introduced SB 1090, but the bill was sidelined by COVID-19 concerns. She said she plans to reintroduce it next year.
“It is a significant, significant public safety issue when you see what is going on along our bluffs,” she said.
Communities along the coast have long dealt with crumbling cliffs for their danger to life and peril to property. Debate rages as how best to address them, from doing nothing to slowing the erosion by replenishing sand to building seawalls.
Just this year, erosion has caused rockslides and cliff collapses near train tracks atop the cliffs in Del Mar. A battle over seawall permits in neighboring Solana Beach landed in the state’s highest court, and over the last 25 years the region saw three other deadly rock falls on the beaches.
The families of the women who died last year said they want action taken to prevent further deaths. Two of the widowers said they are concerned that people continue to sunbathe at the exact site of the deadly fall.
“I have come to the conclusion that the only way those who can make the changes — the city and the state — are going to listen to us is through legislative changes and legal action,” said Dr. Pat Davis, whose wife Julie died.
The rockslide at the center of the lawsuit remains among the deadliest cliff collapses in the county in recent memory. Killed were Anne Davis Clave, 35, her mother Julie Davis, 65, both of Encinitas. Also killed was Davis’ sister (and Clave’s aunt) Elizabeth Charles, 62 and a San Francisco resident.
All three women were mothers. Some of their children were present when the rocks fell.
The plaintiffs in the suit include Clave’s husband and their young children, Davis’ husband and their surviving adult children, and Charles’ husband and their teenage children. All three men were at the news conference, and all three choked up as they spoke.
“The early weeks were an absolute blur, and it slowly but surely evolved into a very harsh reality that we have lost three of the most absolutely beautiful, caring, strong, passionate women. It’s incredibly unfair,” Curtis Clave, Anne’s husband said as he fought tears.
The Encinitas collapse happened shortly before 3 p.m. Aug. 2, 2019, in a popular surf spot with a narrow beach between the water and the sandstone cliffs. Just north of the stairs leading to the sand, a roughly 30-foot-wide chunk of the cliff slipped away.
The suit alleges that “decades of conflict between the competing interests” — the state, cities, property owners, and others — led to dysfunction that created “an unnatural, unstable, and unsafe urbanized cliff” above the narrow beach.
The suit argues that a seawall by the long stairway to the beach stopped erosion around the stairs but weakened the bluff at the ends of the wall.
“This was not an unknown, natural occurrence,” attorney Bibi Fell said. “It was decades in the making from what is not natural anymore, but an urbanized cliff.”
The suit also points to the presence of non-native ice plant, a water-heavy vegetation said to accelerate erosion, and the thirsty but non-native palms trees at the top of the stairs to the beach.
The attorneys said that their research of decades of documents between the city and the state indicates that both entities were aware of the danger at the spot.
The filing also reveals details of the incident. The extended family were enjoying a day at beach and celebrating Cox’s recent defeat of breast cancer when thousands of pounds on sandstone crashed on top of them.
When the rocks fell, Julie Davis’ husband Dr. Pat Davis was sitting next to her, according to the lawsuit. When he couldn’t move the rock and sand atop her, the pediatric dentist tried to carve out a hole for his wife to breathe. He then went to Clave, his youngest daughter, and cradled her head as she lay trapped.
Nearby, Elizabeth Charles’ 18-year-old daughter had been seated next to her mom when the cliff gave way. The young woman was injured and taken to a hospital, but not before seeing her mother’s body in the rubble.
Clave’s 5- and 7-year-old children were also present, and the youngest had been standing by her mother’s chair moments before the collapse.
The suit also alleges that the lifeguard on duty directed the family to sit where they did that day.
It asks for financial damages but does not specify an amount.
— Teri Figueroa is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune
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