A string of broken promises or a case of sour grapes?


The owner of a home on Paseo Serra is still seeking remedy for repairs from government agencies, after half the home slid down a hill following a water main break.

By Sylvie Belmond/Staff Writer

A year after luck ran out for one of the few original small Spanish- style homes in the La Costa neighborhood, when a water main broke and caused extensive damage to a house on Paseo Serra, the home remains uninhabitable.

The owner, Larry Coffman, is suing Los Angeles County, Waterworks District No. 29 and the City of Malibu on this matter because, he said, all three want to place the responsibility of repairs elsewhere. As a result, reparations have been delayed.

Multi-governmental agency mix-ups and homeowner insurance gaps have created a bureaucratic warp for Coffman who now owns a house that he cannot occupy or rent.

The water main broke in early January underneath Coffman’s property and caused part of the structure to come down, and a substantial portion of the ground alongside the house washed away. Workers dug for several hours before they could locate the valves to shut off the water.

Coffman is covered for earthquakes, floods and fires, but not for earth movement, which requires a special policy in itself. Now Coffman still has to pay the mortgage for the red-tagged house and he is growing increasingly unhappy with the delays.

Coffman first thought it would be simple to repair the home. He expected that the governmental agencies would pay to repair the damages caused by the old, four-inch water main breakage without any problems.

However, the county and waterworks say they are not responsible, and the city wants to remain uninvolved.

The water main is owned by Los Angeles County and managed by Water Works District No. 29. To get the house repaired at the expense of the agencies, Coffman filed a lawsuit against the two entities and the City of Malibu, because all failed to act.

But the county and Waterworks disagree with Coffman’s point of view.

Senior Deputy County Counsel Warren Wellen, who represents the county and the water district on this matter, said in this specific case the pipe broke because of earth movement on the steep slope.

“It is my client’s position that Waterworks is not responsible for the breakage,” he said.

“From a legal standpoint, the pipe is owned and maintained by Waterworks No. 29, but the slope is not owned by my clients,” he continued. “The pipes were in good shape.”

Coffman’s lawyer, Thomas Parsekian, said Coffman was not responsible for the pipe and that the county should have been sure the water pipes could withstand earth movement.

Coffman said the county offered to pay for experts to evaluate the damages in May but reneged on its obligation.

“This whole case is a string of broken promises,” said Parsekian. “First they said they were sorry for the damages but now they’re trying to blame Coffman for the breakage.”

“From admitting fault, now the county says, ‘We think it’s Coffman’s fault,'” said Parsekian.

Given the extent of the damages, Coffman said the county later threatened to condemn the house and buy the property because it thought it would be too expensive to repair the damages. However, Coffman said he is attached to the property and he plans to retire in the home.

But Wellen sees it differently. The county never considered buying the property, he said. However, he pointed out, if the county pays so much toward it, it would be entitled to some interest in the property.

The law is not black and white said Wellen, who thought Coffman had a case of sour grapes.

The county and the water district wanted to see if there was a way to resolve the matter, he said. They offered to pay some of the fees incurred by Coffman for experts hired to evaluate the depth of the damages, but that was conditioned on sharing information, which they did not do, he explained.

But Parsekian sustained that the county reneged on the payment of experts after sending a letter stating it would pay.

“It never made any efforts to do anything,” said Parsekian, saying the information was available to the county.

Furthermore, Parsekian said, initially, the county agreed it would pay Coffman costs he would incur to carry the property, while he could not occupy it. That included mortgage, taxes, insurance and any other costs. But none of that was done, said Parsekian.

And while the two attorneys for each side prepare for an upcoming trial, Malibu seems to stand on the sidelines, despite the fact that it too has been named in the lawsuit.

Attorney Ed Richards, who represents the city, said the City of Malibu really doesn’t have a role to play in this case.

The pipe and the property where the pipe is located are all under the county and water district jurisdictions, he explained. “It just happens to be located under a city street but the street has nothing to do with the pipe breaking.”

The city’s job and obligation is to review new plans Coffman will submit to repair the house, concluded Richards.