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Court Denies Request to Adjust Lot Lines After Landslide

Neighbor & Nuisance Disputes and Real Estate Law by Simon Offord, Esq.

In the recent case of Joannou v. City of Rancho Palos Verdes, the appellate court affirmed that under the Cullen Earthquake Act, a homeowner may file a lawsuit to reset property boundaries disturbed due to earth movements.  However, the Court determined that this protection was only available for “disasters,” and not gradual displacement of land.

Plaintiff Andrea Joannou owned a home in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.  As the result of slowly occurring landslide, beginning in the 1950s, Ms. Joannou’s home had migrated 300 feet onto the City’s property.  After the parties were unable to informally resolve the lot line dispute, Ms. Joannou filed suit, seeking to have the property lines adjusted under the Cullen Earthquake Act.

The City prevailed at the trial court level on a motion for summary judgment, claiming that the Cullen Earthquake Act was only intended to apply to sudden earth movements that are disasters, rather than a gradual displacement.  The appellate court affirmed, holding that the Cullen Earthquake Act was intended to only protect those who lost land as a result of such things as an earthquake, flood or fire.  The Court determined that as the landslide took place over 50 years, Ms. Joannou or other similarly situated individuals could take steps to alleviate the issues resulting from the gradual slide, unlike the victims of a sudden disaster.

This is an interesting decision as it creates somewhat of a “slippery slope” as to how to adequately define a disaster that falls under the protection of the Cullen Earthquake Act.  The Court did make an effort to distinguish what constitutes gradual movement versus disaster, in-part by examining other statutes, and surely this analysis will be used in future disputes based off of the Cullen Earthquake Act.

Usually, our office litigates boundary line issues based off of varying easement theories, as discussed in many of our other blog articles.  This case brings to light another way that one may be able to obtain a court order adjusting lot lines.

If you have any questions about property line disputes, please do not hesitate to contact Brewer Offord & Pedersen LLP at (650) 327-2900 or on the web at www.brewerfirm.com

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