August 4, 2014

PLF asks California high court to hear flooding inverse condemnation case

By Anthony L. Francois Senior Attorney

We previously reported on the case of Biron v. City of Redding, in which an apartment building owner is seeking compensation under inverse condemnation for damage that the city’s storm drain system did during a rain storm.  The issue in the case is what level of fault the Birons must prove in order to recover.  The ordinary rule for inverse condemnation cases in California is widely described as strict liability for governments whose public improvements are the substantial cause of damage to private real property.  This is an appropriate standard, since it implements the state and federal constitutional prohibitions on taking property without just compensation.

The trial court incorrectly applied the rule of reasonableness, which is more lenient on governments.  Under this standard, an inverse condemnation plaintiff must show that the government acted unreasonably when it damaged private property, using a complex multi-factor balancing test.  The California Supreme Court established this rule as a special case for flood damages caused by failed levee projects, but lower appellate courts have since issued a jumble of conflicting opinions on how and under what circumstances this standard displaces the default strict liability rule.

On appeal in the Biron’s case, the court of appeal extended the rule of reasonableness from major levee failures to damages caused by garden variety city storm drains.  Our amicus brief in the court of appeal supported the Biron’s argument that strict liability should apply, but the court of appeal disagreed.  The Biron family has asked the California Supreme Court to review the case, and PLF recently filed this amicus letter encouraging the Court to grant review and clarify the law in this area.

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