ENCINITAS — After two years of delays and procedural wrangling, a Vista judge’s ruling last month has advanced a wrongful death lawsuit into the discovery phase, allowing plaintiffs to learn more about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of three women killed in a bluff collapse three years ago at Grandview Beach.
The lawsuit, filed against the city of Encinitas, the state of California, Leucadia Seabluffe Village and Seabreeze Management Company, alleges negligence and dangerous property conditions played a role in the deaths of Julie Davis, 65, her 35-year-old daughter Anne Davis Clave, both of Encinitas, and Davis’ 62-year-old sister Elizabeth Charles of San Francisco.
The Davis family filed suit just a few weeks after a roughly 30-foot hunk of “urbanized” cliff broke loose and crashed onto the beach below, fatally crushing several victims underneath multi-ton sandstone rock.
The lawsuit argues that years of groundwater seepage issues due to “poor storm drain management and irrigation” from the nearby Seabluffe cliff-top condos and the city’s reconstruction of a public beach access stairway in 1993 had significantly weakened the oceanfront cliff.
Further contributing to the collapse was the city’s use of shotcrete on the bluff’s surface, the installation of 10 non-native palm trees requiring consistent watering, and a failure to remove “invasive, non-native, water-laden ice plants” and replace them with “drought and salt-tolerant native plants,” the lawsuit states.
However, litigation was slowed by COVID-19 closures and hearing postponements. In January 2021, the judge sided with the Davis family, tossing out the city and state’s “natural condition immunity” argument. If successful, the state law would have shielded both governing bodies from liability.
More recently, the city filed a motion for summary judgment — a request to end the case without a trial — alleging the family’s original attorney Benjamin Wagner did not meet statutory guidelines when initially filing claims with the city.
According to court documents, Wagner prepared 13 individual claims to be filed with the city clerk as required by state law. However, the claims were mistakenly sent to the city’s risk manager after a municipal employee gave Wagner’s office incorrect filing information.
Attorneys for the city argued for the case to be dismissed since the “plaintiffs failed to comply” with state law by delivering the claims to the wrong department. The judge denied the city’s motion, citing a previous ruling that “[t]he city cannot frustrate plaintiff’s attempt to comply with a statute enacted for its benefit and then assert noncompliance as a defense.”
“We’re very pleased with the summary judgment ruling,” said Zoe Littlepage, attorney for the Davis family. “It appears the city had a ‘gotcha’ moment where a lawyer called down asking how to file, and they misled him. We are all officers of the court. If you have statutory rules, you should follow them.”
Following this months-long detour that required hours of depositions and investigation into the city’s bureaucratic misrepresentations about handling claims, Littlepage remains optimistic the case will move forward much more quickly in the discovery phase.
“Now that this procedural hiccup is over, we can start moving at a faster pace,” Littlepage said. “We are ready to start real discovery.”
Acknowledging the massive legal undertaking before her team, Littlepage plans to conduct depositions from eyewitnesses at the beach near the site of the collapse, including lifeguards and beachgoers. She anticipates the discovery phase to take another eight to 10 months of evidence gathering.
The Houston-based attorney emphasized the Davis family is not interested in a financial settlement and is looking forward to a civil trial.
“(A monetary award) is certainly not what they are asking for,” Littlepage said. “This case needs to go to trial, so the community can hear the evidence and the family can have a voice. They want things changed. A public trial is a great avenue for change.”
According to the complaint and media reports, on the afternoon of Aug. 2, 2019, members of the Davis family met at Grandview Beach to celebrate Charles’ recent recovery from breast cancer. One of the victims, Anne Davis Clave, asked lifeguards where the family should set up on the beach, and the group was directed to set up underneath the cliff, the lawsuit states.
“(The Davis family) asked lifeguards where they should set up,” Littlepage said. “Lifeguards are supposed to be trained to say, ‘Don’t set up near the bluff’s edge.'”
At approximately 2:53 p.m., a portion of the cliff collapsed onto the Davis family, burying several members under heavy sandstone blocks.
Pat Davis, husband of victim Julie Davis, could not lift the rocks off his wife and “dug a hole in the sand around her head to enable her to breathe,” per the lawsuit. The father then went to where his youngest daughter, Clave, was located and held her head in his lap while waiting for paramedics to arrive.
Clave, seated near her two young children when the collapse occurred, was extricated from the pile by first responders and later died in the hospital from severe blunt-force head trauma. Julie Davis was ultimately pulled from the heap and transported to the hospital, where she later succumbed to her injuries.
Elizabeth Charles, who was sitting next to her 18-year-old daughter, was killed after heavy sandstone boulders fragmented her body, some of which was never recovered, court documents say.
All of the children survived the event.
Emergency personnel from multiple nearby city fire departments, some equipped with shovels, surrounded the site after the collapse, The Coast News first reported. A yellow tarp lay over a large chunk of rock near the Davis family’s towels, beach chairs and umbrellas.
Then-acting City Manager Jennifer Campbell released a statement to The Coast News in 2019 attributing the collapse to “the natural erosion process characteristic of California beaches.”
Signs warning of unstable cliffs dot the area, including one visible from where the collapse occurred, and more signage was added in the wake of the accident. At the time of the incident, the city’s website warned of the potential for bluff failures and cautioned beachgoers to keep their distance from the increasingly fragile terrain.
“Please be aware that in most areas hiking near or directly on top of the bluffs is prohibited. It is also important for visitors to avoid standing or sitting directly underneath unstable bluffs since they may collapse,” the website read.
Bluff safety awareness efforts in the months and years following the collapse have had seemingly little impact on the public’s grasp of the ongoing dangers at Grandview and other beaches along the San Diego County coastline.
In court filings, the Davis family shared a photo taken one year after the fatal collapse depicting beachgoers sitting and laying directly under the same cliffs at Grandview in the “presence of lifeguards on duty — and totally unaware of the peril that surrounds them.”
The Coast News reached out to the city of Encinitas for comment on the litigation and any safety measures implemented at the northernmost portion of Leucadia State Beach since the incident.
“Due to pending litigation, the city has no comment,” a spokesperson said.