Judge says lawsuit’s claims of racism, corruption at Oroville Dam can go forward

Blockbuster claims in a lawsuit that a racist, sexist, corrupt culture contributed to the near-catastrophic failure of Oroville Dam two years ago can go forward, a Sacramento judge ruled Thursday.

The decision by Sacramento Superior Court Judge James McFetridge sets the stage for what plaintiffs’ attorneys vow will be a deep dive into claims of a poisonous work culture that nearly disastrously compromised the nation’s tallest dam and the safety of nearly 200,000 residents downstream.

The lawsuit was brought by the city of Oroville, dozens of farmers, businesses and others against the state’s Department of Water Resources. The plaintiffs seek hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys allege the culture cultivated by the state’s Department of Water Resources was a dangerous distraction for workers at the Butte County site.

“A toxic culture was part of the harm. We’re going to shine a light on what happened at Oroville Dam,” Niall McCarthy, an attorney representing plaintiffs in the case, said Wednesday, promising a “full top-to-bottom examination of DWR so a crisis like this doesn’t happen again in the future.”

The crisis at Oroville Dam in February 2017 began when a large crater formed in the spillway. The spillway’s failure forced 188,000 people to evacuate.

The lawsuit before McFetridge includes wide-ranging allegations of sexual and racial harassment of dam employees, widespread equipment theft by dam officials, book-cooking to hide financial misdeeds and destroying evidence of shoddy maintenance that plaintiffs’ attorneys allege contributed to the dam disaster.

State attorneys blasted the allegations as “salacious” and sought to throw them out in February, saying the claims had nothing to do with the spillway’s failure. Plaintiffs’ attorneys disagreed, telling McFetridge in their filings that the allegations illustrate the dam’s mismanagement and the alleged theft of items crucial to the dam’s operation.

McFetridge in his ruling allowed the allegations to stand, saying plaintiffs’ attorneys Cotchett and McCarthy levied the same claims in 2018 in their complaint filed on behalf of Butte County plaintiffs Mary’s Gone Crackers and Wilbur Ranch, known as the “MGC Complaint.” McFetridge said that because the claims listed in that complaint were not contained in DWR’s February motion to throw out the allegations, the claims can’t be stricken.

“Because the Court cannot strike the contested allegations from the MGC Complaint, those allegations necessarily remain included in this case,” McFetridge wrote. “Striking the allegations from the pleadings that are the focus of the motion would serve no purpose or benefit,” he wrote in denying the state attorneys’ motion.

Department of Water Resources officials again flatly rejected the allegations in the lawsuit and downplayed the ruling as one handed down solely on procedural grounds in a statement Thursday evening.

“The judge did not in any way rule that these allegations are appropriate for inclusion or true. Instead, he denied DWR’s motion strictly for procedural reasons,” department spokeswoman Erin Mellon said in a statement. “DWR remains prepared to defend its zero tolerance policy before and during the Oroville spillways incident by our dedicated DWR employees.”

McCarthy said he plans to issue subpoenas to gather more evidence to bolster plaintiffs’ claims.

“We’re issuing subpoenas and taking testimony on the very aspect of what was happening at the dam when they should have been focusing on safety,” McCarthy said.