A Santa Rosa family who lived in a mold-plagued apartment and their lawyers will split $1.3 million in the most expensive substandard housing verdict in Sonoma County history.
Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Knoel Owen approved $643,435 in fees for the family's attorneys Monday. Earlier this year, a jury awarded $694,550 to tenant Tina Rogers and her 8-year-old son, David.
The jury unanimously agreed that two Tiburon landlords and a Santa Rosa property manager, Molln Properties, knowingly rented an apartment to the Rogers that was a health hazard. Jurors agreed the defendants refused to make repairs and retaliated when Tina Rogers asked for help.
``Nobody deserves to live in that kind of environment,'' said Keith Byers, jury foreman for the four-week trial.
The property owners and Molln Properties have appealed the verdict, saying in court documents that the award was excessive. They said the conditions in the apartment were mainly Tina Rogers' fault. In addition, they contended testimony that the mold and cockroaches affected the Rogers' health was scientifically unreliable.
They declined to discuss the case because it is under appeal.
``The amount of the verdict alone demonstrates that the jury was motivated by passion and prejudice, (and) did not listen to the evidence,'' Santa Rosa attorney Heather Smith wrote in her argument supporting the appeal.
She also said it was unfair to conduct the trial without the presence of property owners Ann and Joseph Colletto, whose poor health prevented them from attending.
``On a good day'' the case had a reasonable value of $20,000 to $40,000, Smith said.
Most of the jurors disagreed, awarding $694,550 to compensate Rogers for living in an unhealthy apartment plagued by mold for more than three years, Byers said. Three jurors voted for a lesser amount. The award did not include punitive damages.
Payment is postponed until resolution of the appeal, which could take more than a year, said Santa Rosa attorney Edie Sussman, who represented the Rogerses.
The $1.3 million award is a record in a county where landlords are paying increasingly large jury awards and legal settlements in response to charges they rented substandard housing.
It has spurred several industry seminars to help landlords adequately remediate mold, Santa Rosa attorneys said.
Tina and David Rogers moved into the 18-unit apartment complex at 2807 Ventura Ave. in Santa Rosa in August 1999.
Rogers, 41, had worked in the hospitality and grocery industries for 20 years, she said. In 1999, she was recovering from treatment for malignant melanoma, a cancer that was being kept in check with chemotherapy.
She said she told Molln Properties she needed a clean, quiet place to heal. She loved the Ventura Avenue apartment because it had a big patio, a tree and a fenced yard, where then-3-year-old David could play safely.
``I thought it was going to be real peaceful for me,'' Rogers said.
The Rogers were Section 8 tenants, who receive assistance under a federal subsidy program. The federal government helped to pay their rent because Tina couldn't work. The two-bedroom unit rented for $795, later raised to $890. Rogers said she paid about half and taxpayers paid about half.
Soon after the Rogers moved in, black mold began to cover the newly painted walls and spread throughout the apartment, in spite of repeated scrubbings with bleach, Tina Rogers said. Later she learned that earlier tenants complained of the same problems, as have tenants who came after her, according to court testimony.