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Structural damage from earth movement: legal remedies in California

Damage to houses and commercial property happens too often throughout the state from shifting earth.

California residents are all too familiar with the problem of damage to homes, businesses and other buildings from earth movement such as in well publicized incidents in Laguna Niguel, Mission Viejo, Laguna Beach, Palos Verdes and Portuguese Bend. When structures are built without careful analysis of whether the supporting ground is sufficient or needs to be modified, or if earth modification is not done appropriately, severe damage and monetary losses can result.

A common kind of damage from soil movement is cracking, which can happen throughout a structure such as in the slab, foundation, stucco, drywall, walkways and driveways, floors, ceilings and more. Shifting of a foundation can impair the functionality of windows and doors. In the worst cases, buildings become structurally unstable or even collapse.

The costs to repair problems caused by earth movement vary widely, but some types can be prohibitively expensive for some owners such as securing the building to bedrock, installing support piers, or injecting the soil with cement or another strengthener.

The scenarios in which this damage can occur often involve the interaction of soil and water or moisture and can include:

  • Landslides and cliff collapses
  • Creeping, expanding, heaving, sinking or contracting soil, particularly with clay or sandy soils
  • Ground movement down slopes
  • Contraction, settlement or expansion of soil used as fill to create building pads or to fill canyons or other indentations
  • Improper compaction of fill soil
  • Inadequate grading
  • Insufficient foundation
  • Unexpected water flow
  • Construction on unstable hills, near earthquake faults, in areas of erosion, on altered terrain or in areas of geologic activity
  • Improper landscaping or irrigation systems

Any building owner who suspects structural damage from soil slippage, landslide or ground shifting should seek legal advice from an attorney who understands the ins and outs of earth movement cases. Significantly, such a lawyer will have professional relationships with experts for consultation on the structural and scientific issues.

It is important to hire experts with the right training and experience to carefully investigate and evaluate the cause of the earth movement, the extent of the damage, what is likely to happen going forward, the costs of corrective action and the identity of potentially responsible parties who may be liable for the damages. Appropriate experts could include geologists, structural engineers or geotechnical engineers.

Depending on the circumstances, the kinds of parties who could be responsible include architects, contractors and subcontractors, soil compactors, utility companies, construction material suppliers, government entities, homeowners' associations, graders, neighbors, insurers, engineers, geologists and developers.

The victim of soil shifting should speak with legal counsel as early as possible to avoid missing any legal deadlines that could result in loss of the right to bring a lawsuit against a potentially responsible party.

It may be cheaper and smarter to attempt to negotiate a settlement in an earth movement dispute rather than to go to trial. Negotiation is often facilitated by legal counsel and may involve mediation or arbitration. If settlement is not appropriate or possible, the parties may end up in court with the injured party seeking money damages.

San Diego attorney Bryan Snyder of the Law Office of Bryan R. Snyder, APC, represents residential and commercial property owners in soil movement claims throughout the state of California and the western United States.

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