LOS ANGELES (CN) - L.A. Clippers basketball team owner Donald Sterling willfully ignored fire-safety regulations at his "unsafe and dangerously maintained" West Hollywood apartment building, three tenants claim in Superior Court class action.
"In an effort to save a few dollars," Sterling let fire alarms and smoke detectors at his 54-unit multistory building fall into disrepair, according to the complaint.
Lead plaintiff Troy Robinson and two others say Sterling then failed to take immediate action to fix the system, even after a fire broke out.
The complaint names as defendants Donald T. Sterling dba Beverly Hills Properties, his wife Rochelle Sterling, the Sterling Family Trust and Does 1-100.
"Despite the reality of the reckless and indifferent manner in which 'defendants' own, operate and manage their 'properties,' they run advertisements with weekly and sometimes daily frequency, usually in the Los Angeles Times, touting their 'luxury apartments' and '50,000 satisfied tenants,'" the complaint states. "Defendant Sterling also seeks to promote his philanthropic efforts by advertisements touting his purported philanthropy in an effort to create good will in the community to enhance the image of the 'properties.' In truth, upon information and belief, defendants' apartments are unsafe and dangerously maintained, and defendant Sterling is a landlord who regularly overcharges for rent, while secretly and unknown to the tenants, not conducting, nor causing them to be conducted, required routine fire safety equipment maintenance on the 'properties.' Moreover, 'defendants' have developed across the board, company wide practices and follow said practices for the operation of the 'properties' that put profit before the safety of their tenants; an integral part of this plan involves intentionally refraining from complying with fire safety laws and regulations and the inspections required by law and regulation. By engaging in said conduct the 'defendants' can keep the cost of operating and managing the properties below that of the competition that regularly comply with the fire safety laws and regulations."
Beverly Hills Properties told Courthouse News that the lawsuit is frivolous.
"All Beverly Hills Properties managed buildings are inspected and have been maintained at the highest level for 50 years," house counsel Douglas Walton said in an email. "Its records and those of third parties confirm that all fire regulations are complied with, to the letter."
But the tenants say Sterling waited four weeks to inspect faulty smoke detectors and fire alarms after a September 2009 fire "caused serious personal injury and substantial property damage losses."
"During this four-week time period, defendants falsely informed tenants of the building that the premises were safe and habitable when defendants knew the smoke detectors and fire alarm system was not working rendering unsafe the occupancy of the building," the complaint states. "'Defendants' finally performed an inspection of the building's fire and smoke alarm system on October 26, 2009. This inspection uncovered widespread failure to comply of each and every single piece of fire protection equipment-including alarms, hoses and water pressure-at the building including the fact that the mini-horn alarms were not working in 52 or the 54 apartments within the building."
Then, after the inspection, it allegedly took another five months to fix the system.
Tellingly, Philomena Wong, property director of Sterling's Beverly Hills Properties, replied, "I don't know," when lawyers asked her during a deposition if it was important to maintain a fire-detection system, according to the lawsuit. Wong is not a named defendant.
This is not the first time Sterling has run into legal troubles over his properties.
In late 2005, the Clippers owner paid $5 million to settle claims that he drove blacks and Latinos out of his Koreatown apartments.
In 2009, Sterling settled with the Justice Department for more than $2.7 million in a housing-discrimination case related to apartments in the same neighborhood.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Sterling had said: "Black tenants smell and attract vermin."
The class seeks exemplary and punitive damages for breach of the warranty of habitability, tortious breach of warranty, violation of the Business and Professions Code, and unjust enrichment. It is represented by Peter Levine.
Neither Sterling nor Levine immediately responded to requests for comment.
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