Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Court Revives Suit Over Contamination at Housing Site
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Factual disputes exist as to whether dozens of plaintiffs who claim they were exposed to toxics at the site of their former apartment complex waited too long to sue, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday in overturning the dismissal of their complaint against Exxon Mobil and the County of Los Angeles.
Div. Seven reinstated claims by 58 of the more than 700 plaintiffs who filed the suit in April 2010. The 58 are among about 100 plaintiffs whose claims were found time-barred by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Anthony Mohr on the ground that they were on notice in 2007 that the premises might be contaminated.
That ruling was erroneous, Justice Laurie Zelon wrote for the Court of Appeal, because the notices the plaintiffs received from the county suggested they were not at risk of serious harm. Whether a reasonably prudent person would have suspected the city was wrong is a question of fact that should not have been resolved on demurrer, she said.
The plaintiffs lived at the 300-unit Ujima Village apartment homes complex, where they once enjoyed one- to four-bedroom apartment homes with amenities that included a computer lab for which Magic Johnson donated a reported $10,000.
From 1924, the property was the site of the Athens Tank Farm, a petroleum products distribution center consisting of two large crude oil reservoirs. When the purchasers of the property began Ujima Village in the early 1970s, they were unaware that there was still hazardous waste deep below the surface.
The property was poorly maintained, and was taken over by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which sold it to the county in 1995 for $1.
The contamination was discovered when developers were considering purchasing the property in the 2000s. According to the Superior Court complaint, the Housing Authority began seeking compensation for environmental damage from Exxon Mobil in early 2007, but did not inform residents of the pollution issues other than to say in letters that it was considering closing the complex “due to the age and obsolescence of the property, the substantial economic cost of rehabilitation, and the significant disruption to the daily lives of residents to remediate environmental concerns.”
The letters urged the residents to remain in their homes and continue to pay rent. Many did, until the Board of Supervisors declared the property blighted and ordered the residents evicted in April 2009.
Zelon, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the 2007 letters could not, in and of themselves, have placed the plaintiffs on notice of their potential claims for damages.
“[W]e conclude that the trial court erred in rejecting appellants’ claim of delayed discovery based solely on the fact that they received notice of the contamination in 2007,” she wrote. “During the discovery process, respondents may well uncover evidence demonstrating that, as of 2007, some or all of the appellants actually suspected the contamination was capable of causing them personal harm, or otherwise possessed additional information that put them on inquiry notice of such facts. At this early stage in the proceedings, however, it would be improper to presume that any reasonably prudent person who received the information provided in the May 2007 letter or at the April 2007 community meeting would, as a matter of law, suspect that the contamination posed a risk to human health.”
Attorneys on appeal were David P. Bender, Jr., Caroline R. Hurtado and Michael J. Stoner for the plaintiffs; Larry Feldman, Peter Haviland and Robert Estrin for Exxon Mobil; and Gary A. Meyer, Pedram F. Mazgani and Isaac B. Simon for Parker, Milliken, Clark, O’Hara & Samuelian for the county.
The case is Alexander v. Exxon Mobil, 13 S.O.S. 4992.
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