By Nao Braverman
Three months after a tree came crashing into Mel Williams’ duplex in downtown Ojai, a Ventura attorney helped him file a small claims action against the city.
For the 18 years that the Georgia-born Ojai resident lived in his Franklin Street home, the community had been good to him, and he, in turn, had given back to the community in his own way. Every Christmas, Williams, dressed in a red suit, black boots and white beard, poses as Santa Claus for the neighborhood kids, and anyone in Ojai who would request it.
But when a rotten tree on nearby city-owned land, fell on his home, destroying his Chevrolet custom van and some of his property, no one at City Hall could offer him help.
Strapped for cash, with many of his belongings lost or destroyed, Williams filed a claim with the city asking for payment of his damages. But the city denied his claim outright, with no explanation, said Ventura attorney, Tina Cowdrey who is taking the case pro bono.
The damages for which Williams holds the city responsible include the destruction of his van which was hit by the falling tree, and a television, VCR and stereo, which were taken by looters while the property was surrounded with red tape and declared off-limits.
Williams had asked if he could go in to retrieve some important paperwork, but city officials wouldn’t let him into the destroyed home, he said. That’s when the looters came and took his belongings, he added.
He is asking for $7,500 for his loss, which he believes actually came out to about $9,000, including the $5,000 van and approximately $4,000 for the lost furniture, including a couch, chairs and bed, and other miscellaneous goods, a television, VCR, stereo, clothing, and pictures on the wall. Williams holds the city responsible because it failed to maintain the tree and diagnose it as rotten, according to the claim.
City manager Jere Kersnar said he did not know the details of the incident, but said that the city automatically hands such cases over to the California Joint Powers Insurance Agency, a pool for sharing liabilities among 119 California cities, of which Ojai is a member. The advice of the insurance agency’s third party administrator, Carl Warren & Company, was to deny the claim, so that’s what the city did, he said.
George Mankiewicz, a claims supervisor at Carl Warren & Company said that a neighbor of Williams had called to complain about the rotting tree in December 2006, about a year and three months before the incident.
Ojai’s arborist inspected the tree, and had it trimmed at that time, said Mankiewicz.
“It is our contention that the trimming of a tree between a year and two years is reasonable. The regularly scheduled inspection was in January 2007, a month later, so the city was ahead of the game. There was no outward indication that the tree was rotting away from the inside.”
According to Mankiewicz, the city has an obligation to inspect its property, which it did, to the best of its ability. The city would also be liable if it were aware of the dangerous condition on the property. But if the city failed to discover the dangerous condition on its own, it was not liable.
“Nobody’s perfect,” said Mankiewicz. He added that several trees went down in Ojai during the heavy winds in March.
But it has not been as easy for Williams to hop back on his feet. Williams receives Section 8 vouchers which help pay his rent. He had no renter’s insurance, and there is no requirement that owners of Area Housing Authority-subsidized property provide insurance.
The Ventura County Chapter of the American Red Cross had placed Williams in the Capri Motel for one week and, after having a hard time finding a place which accepts Section 8 rentals, he finally found a one-bedroom apartment in Meiners Oaks.
But the cost of living has risen considerably since. Gas and water are more expensive at his new place and Williams has scrambled to come up with funds to refurnish his new apartment that he shares with his grandson and a boxer-pit bull mix.
“It’s been hard on us,” he said. “I went into debt just trying to survive here,” he said.
“When we first got here we didn’t even have a bed to sleep on, but people have been nice and offered donations,” he added.
Williams has a heart condition and is mostly confined to his bed, he said. He remembers the day when he was sitting on his sofa with his grandson and heard the strangest noise he had ever heard coming from outside the window.
“Then in came the windows, and then the door and the roof,” he said. “I grabbed my grandson and dove to the floor.”
A light came in through the windows illuminating the dark remains of the living room on that fateful day, and Williams realized that it was emergency personnel shining a flashlight through the window, he said. Community members were helpful but city officials were not, said Williams.
He is awaiting a judge’s opinion and a small claims court trial date is set for the morning of July 25.
The Franklin Street duplex that was partially crushed by the tree is still boarded up. A week before the incident, the structure had been damaged by a vehicle that crashed into the duplex, according to a letter from Ojai’s Community Development Department addressed to the Wisconsin-based property owner. With damages from the vehicle crash and the tree falling combined, the units are deemed dangerous to the public.
The property owner was ordered to abate the public nuisance in the beginning of April but no changes have been made to the property.