Island County commissioners this week settled two lawsuits brought by Central Whidbey homeowners affected by a massive 2013 landslide.
The more than 65 plaintiffs in the lawsuits will split $1.5 million, which will be paid by the Washington Counties Risk Pool. The county also agrees to rebuild the portion of Driftwood Way, destroyed in the Ledgewood Beach landslide, unless there’s unforeseen geological problems or the county can’t secure easements.
Elaine Marlow, the county’s risk manager, emphasized that the county admitted no liability or fault in the settlement.
“This was a compromise to avoid costly and lengthy litigation,” she told the county commissioners Tuesday, adding that all parties agree that the hillside consists of unstable material.
“The county makes no warranties that another future sliding will not occur,” she added.
The settlement was reached, Marlow said, during mediated settlement negotiations involving county officials, the risk pool attorney and the plaintiffs’ attorney.
Seattle attorney Karen Willie filed the lawsuits in Island and Snohomish counties last year. One of the lawsuits was on behalf of the owners of five homes rendered uninhabitable by the landslide. The other was a class action lawsuit on behalf of people owning property in the Bon Air and Ledgewood Beach subdivisions.
Willie said she could not discuss the settlement because the plaintiffs signed on to a confidentiality agreement among themselves. Willie, who said she’s known affectionately as “the water witch,” specializing in bringing lawsuits and defending against lawsuits involving damage caused by landslides. She is representing some of the families struck by the Oso landslide in Snohomish County.
The Central Whidbey landslide woke residents of the neighborhood at about 4 a.m. on March 27, 2013, as 5.3 million cubic feet of earth, one house and a small woods was displaced in a matter of moments, according to a Department of Natural Resources report. The slide destroyed part of Driftwood Way and affected many other homes, but nobody was injured.
The lawsuits against Island County faults county officials for not dealing with drainage issues properly in the well-known landslide area and worsening the instability in the area by continually adding and compacting fill on the roadway, despite experts’ warning that doing so would further destabilize the landmass.
In addition, the lawsuits claim that the county breached its duties by refusing to accept ownership or maintenance responsibility for an access road built to link the south end of Driftwood Way to Fircrest Avenue. The road doesn’t allow access to all of the residents’ requirements, including complete emergency services, the lawsuits state.
A 2013 report that GeoEngineers, Inc. compiled for the county pointed to high seasonal and cumulative groundwater; built-up groundwater and hydrostatic pressure from previous slide material impeding seepage; pre-existing slide planes; and erosion at the toe of the slide area as likely triggers.
Also, the Department of Natural Resources’ “quick report” by four geologists described the landslide as part of a much larger, 1.5-mile “landslide complex” that may date back as much as 11,000 years and is made from poorly consolidated materials.