Something in the Water: Jensen Camp resident Brad Baker and his family drank fluoride-contaminated water for at least eight years before the county alerted tenants.
Judge Lydia Villarreal’s courtroom teems with 13 lawyers on the morning of June 3. They’re here for the next chapter in a water contamination lawsuit stretching back almost a decade.
At a mobile home park in Carmel Valley’s Cachagua neighborhood, county tests of well water in 1995, 1999 and 2002 showed naturally-occurring fluoride levels up to four times the state’s safe maximum for drinking water. But neither the county nor then-landowner Rick Pinch acted until a resident visited the health department to complain about the yellow water.
The county worked with Pinch on a plan to fix the water system and notify the residents, according to Deputy County Counsel Patrick McGreal, but still nothing was done.
In summer 2003 Pinch sold the camp to two of his tenants, Javier Guzman and Tosha Djirbandee-Ramos, who allege he never mentioned the unsafe water (which the tenants were still drinking).
Guzman and Djirbandee-Ramos were later awarded $800,000 plus fees in a fraud lawsuit against Pinch. But the $350,000 Pinch handed over wasn’t enough to repair the well, and in 2004 the new landlords and 79 tenants sued both Pinch and the county.
From there the case got sucked into a legal pinball machine, bouncing through decisions, appeals and reversals from the Monterey County Superior Court to the Sixth District Court of Appeal to the California Supreme Court. It finally landed back in Superior Court.
A jury trial set for June 24 will allow the plaintiffs to try to prove their injuries. More than half have already settled with the county, according to San Diego-based plaintiffs’ attorney Lynde Seldon, leaving 31 headed to court next week.
Last summer, a local jury found Pinch and the county share responsibility for the contamination. But the plaintiffs dismissed Pinch from the lawsuit after he moved to Florida. “We know where he is; he’s just beyond the reach of any California subpoena,” Seldon says.
That’s news to the county, which has been searching for Pinch – even deploying private investigators – to try to subpoena him. “The problem is, he has no assets and can’t be found,” McGreal says.
The Weekly reached him by calling the same Crestville, Fla. number he had back in 2008. Pinch says he hasn’t heard from the attorneys for years and has wondered what’s up with the suit.
And he still feels wronged by a lawsuit he says cost him $2.5 million. “[The fluoride] is naturally occurring,” he says. “Did somebody’s teeth fall out because of the fluoride? No – it could have been the crack-cocaine or the meth they took for 15 years.”
Villarreal seems skeptical about causation, too, barring much of the plaintiffs’ planned expert testimony and limiting the alleged injuries to be the subject of the trial.
“There is very little left of the plaintiffs’ case,” McGreal says. Remaining claims might be settled before trial, he adds.
Longtime Jensen Camp tenants Debra and Brad Baker, who claim to have suffered hair and bone loss from the contamination, settled with the county several months ago. (Brad declines to disclose the amount.) But their two sons, along with Guzman and Djirbandee-Ramos’ four daughters, are seeking more significant damages.
Brad Baker says Jensen Camp’s water situation has been much better since Linda and Howard Hugo bought the camp in late 2008. A new system is in place, he says, but it hasn’t been cleared to go online yet. The camp’s tenants are still drinking bottled water.
• June 24, 2009: Water quality disclosure not government’s job
• October 30, 2009: Judge rules against county over fluoride contamination in water