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Williams v. Moulton Niguel Water District

California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Third Division

May 3, 2018

LISA WILLIAMS et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,
v.
MOULTON NIGUEL WATER DISTRICT et al., Defendants and Respondents.

          Appeal from a judgment of the Superior Court of Orange County, No. 30-2011-00519887 Thierry Patrick Colaw, Judge. Affirmed.

          Callahan, Thompson, Sherman & Caudill; Robert W. Thompson, Brett E. Bitzer; Lee A. Sherman and Erin M. Mallon for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

          Marcia Skully, Heather C. Beatty, Jill C. Teraoka, Heriberto F. Diaz; Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland and Timothy T. Coates for Defendant and Respondent Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

          Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard & Smith; Charles L. Harris, Stephen L. Culp and Gary M. Lape for Defendant and Respondent Irvine Ranch Water District.

          Law Offices of Robert J. Gokoo and Robert J. Gokoo for Defendant and Respondent Moulton Niguel Water District.

          Best Best & Krieger and Jeffrey V. Dunn for Amicus Curiae Association of California Water Agencies, League of California Cities, San Diego County Water Authority, Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, Municipal Water District of Orange County, Foothill Municipal Water District, and West Basin Municipal Water District.

          OPINION

          IKOLA, JUDGE.

         Plaintiff homeowners allege the copper piping in their homes was damaged by a chemical the defendant water districts added to tap water. Adding the chemical was authorized by regulation, however, and it is undisputed that the water districts complied with all statutory and regulatory standards. After a bifurcated bench trial on certain legal issues, the trial court entered judgment for the water districts, finding plaintiffs' causes of action for nuisance and inverse condemnation were preempted by federal and state laws, and otherwise insufficient on the merits. The plaintiff homeowners appealed. For reasons we explain below, we conclude the plaintiffs' causes of action fail on the merits, and thus affirm.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiffs Lisa Williams and Shawn Williams filed a putative class action complaint against defendants Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (Metropolitan) and Irvine Ranch Water District (Irvine Ranch). Plaintiffs Steven Eckert and Joseph Repetti filed a putative class action complaint against Metropolitan and Moulton Niguel Water District (Moulton Niguel). Plaintiffs Anthony Caito and Enrique Ceniceros filed a putative class action complaint against Metropolitan and Moulton Niguel. The three complaints were consolidated. Collectively, we refer to defendants as the Water Districts.

         All three complaints asserted causes of action for public and private nuisance, and inverse condemnation, seeking damages, injunctive relief, attorney fees, and costs. Each complaint alleges that chloramine in the water caused pinhole leaks in the copper piping of plaintiffs' homes.

         The parties stipulated to sever five threshold legal issues for trial on the merits, four of which are at issue here. Those issues were:

         “a. Are the Plaintiffs' causes of action preempted by federal Safe Drinking Water Act?

         “b. Are the Plaintiffs' causes of action preempted by the California Safe Drinking Water Act; and/or application of Hartwell Corp. v. Superior Court [(2002) 27 Cal.4th 256], and In re Groundwater Cases [(2007) 154 Cal.App.4th 659]?

         “c. As a matter of law, can the occurrence of pinhole leaks in residential copper plumbing give rise to inverse condemnation liability allegedly caused by the treatment and delivery of drinking water?

         [¶]... [¶]

         “e. As a matter of law, does the Defendants' compliance with statutory and regulatory mandates bar plaintiffs' ...


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