Centennial Series: Long Beach & The Law
In honor of the Long Beach Bar Association’s Centennial, this is a series of historical notes on cases and courts in Long Beach through the decades.
March -Shaking the Thirties
On March 10, 1933, a 6.3 scale earthquake devastated the City.
Although the destruction reached far beyond city limits, this was the epicenter and the event became known as the Long Beach quake.
The death toll reached 115 people, and so many buildings were destroyed that thousands were suddenly homeless. The ruin of shops and factories and commercial inventory was a financial catastrophe in the middle of the Great Depression. Most alarming, the majority of schools in Long Beach were unusable. Fortunately, the quake hit after 5:00 p.m. so students were not in school.
The infrastructure was fractured, including the “Red Line” to and
from Los Angeles. The Navy provided law enforcement to assist the
overextended local authorities. Recent studies suggest that extensive
oil drilling was a major contributory factor in the strength of the quake’s
effect. Another factor was the prevalence of unreinforced brick
structures put up during a building boom in the 1920s.
In the aftermath, there was extensive litigation which carried on for
the rest of the decade. As noted in the case of Bank of America National
Trust & Sav. Ass’n v. Lane Mortgage Co. (1937) 18 Cal.App.2d 431, 437,
The Great Depression had already “decreased the value of land
considerably.” But after the quake “the market for real property was
temporarily destroyed.” (I assume no pun was intended).
The case of Kornblaugh v. McKinney (1935) 5 Cal.App.2d 339, illustrates the
effect on landlords and tenants. The
Plaintiffs had leased a three story brick
apartment building at a monthly rate of
$320 per month which had to be tendered
at a designated bank. Rent was due on the
1st of the month, and upon default no later
than the 10th. Unfortunately, March 10th
was a bank holiday and the tendered rent
could not be accepted. That evening the
quake rendered the property
uninhabitable and all of the tenants left. The March rent was never paid. A UD judgment for $445 in rent and possession was issued. The Court held that neither the failure to accept tender nor the ruin of the premises were defenses because tenants had remained in possession: “This is not a case in which the lease was terminated by the destruction of the premises, as contemplated by Civil Code, section 1933, nor by any terms of the lease itself. Under circumstances such as here presented the obligation devolving upon lessees to continue paying rent as provided by the lease was not diminished or otherwise affected by the impairment of the property by earthquake.” A harsh result by today’s lights, but not an uncommon one after the quake.
In Finch v. McKee (1936) 18 Cal.App.2d 90, the Plaintiffs had traded their farm for seller’s commercial property shortly before the quake. The property was so badly damaged it was condemned. On demurrer, the trial court dismissed their case claiming damages for misrepresentations that the building was earthquake proof. The Court of Appeals reversed, noting “It may be conceded the respondents' statements that the store in question was a first-class structure equal to the best building of that type in Long Beach, that it would withstand shocks of earthquake, and that it was worth $ 25,000, were mere expressions of opinion” and therefore not actionable as fraud. “The mere statement that the building in question was constructed earthquake proof is a matter of pure speculation or prophecy. Every person of common understanding knows it is impossible to estimate the destructive forces of nature accompanying earthquakes, tornadoes, cyclones, storms or floods.” However, it was only after destruction that it was revealed “inferior to those required by the specifications and ordinance.” Because the Plaintiffs did not seek rescission of the note, only application of their damages to the debt, the case could proceed.
The repairs following the quake also led to injury and death. In Long Beach v. Industrial Accident Committee (1934) 138 Cal.App.2d 53 a City employee of the “Street Lighting Department” was fatally electrocuted when he touched a line his supervisor told him was dead. The Court dryly observed “there appears to have been some confusion in the operation of City affairs” after the earthquake. Understandable, but it was no defense to the claim for death benefits.
Pursuit of State money for the purpose of repairing the City’s infrastructure also generated litigation. In Long Beach v. Payne (1935) 3 Cal.2d 184, “Petitioner city sought a writ of mandamus to compel respondent, a county auditor, to release money allocated to the city from a ‘motor vehicle fund’ to improve and repair canals located in the city.” The writ was issued. The High Court held that for statutory purposes, a canal is a highway.
In a decision prior to the quake, but a quintessential Long Beach case nevertheless, The People prosecuted a Mr. Clarence Chase for operating gambling ships out of Long Beach harbor. Penal Code §318 prohibited maintaining “a room, building or other place" for the purpose of gambling. By way of defense, Mr. Chase urged that a ship was not a “place” within the statutory meaning because the ship moved from place to place, and hence was no “place” at all. No cigar for Mr. Chase on that Wonderland reasoning. Applying the doctrine of ejusdem generis (“of the same kind, class or nature”) the Superior Court appellate division held that if it was site where gambling was offered, it was a “place” within the meaning of the statute, and let the chips fall where they may. People v. Chase (1931) 117 Cal.App.Supp, 775.
Long Beach did recover from both the quake and the depression when the entire country went into production for World War II. Next month we’ll take a look at the 40s.
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The LBBA would like to extend a special thank you to Ken Freedman for his work in preparing this series.