Ab and Mina Hashemi, former tenants of the Americana apartment complex who were exposed to asbestos fibers during a botched roofing job late last year, were slightly better off on Monday after taking their former landlord to small claims court.
The court awarded them $7,500, the small claims maximum, to compensate for damages from toxic asbestos contamination that destroyed furniture and clothes.
"This court would give you quite a bit more than you are asking," said Commissioner Steven Yep in his decision. "What we have here goes well over $7,500."
Due to a roofing job last October, which shook dust particles down from the ceilings of upper-floor apartments, more than a dozen tenants were exposed to asbestos in Americana's Building Five on Continental Circle. The dust settled on clothes and furniture that no one would guarantee was clean -- even after the landlord, a company called Prometheus, had a team of workers go through each apartment with HEPA vacuums and special wipes.
Hashemi estimated damages of over $13,000 for two couches, several business suits and patio furniture that he had to leave behind because it was still covered in asbestos dust.
Linda Rodriguez, appearing on behalf of Prometheus, admitted that "This was an unfortunate learning experience," and blamed the problem on the roof, which was unknown to be missing a necessary piece of sheet metal above the ceiling. She said that 18 of the complex's 24 buildings were built between 1969 and 1972, and that asbestos is in the ceiling's fire retardant "popcorn" and in the tape used to fill gaps in the drywall.
Residents say workers, who apparently did not know about the asbestos, pounded violently on the roof and even cut right through the ceiling during the project. At one point, a hole in the roof led to water damage in some apartments after the first of the season's winter storms hit.
The company's own documents showed that asbestos was found in the Hashemi's apartment at four times the limit an environmental contractor found to be safe.
Rodriguez said that tenants were quickly notified of the problem and apartments were sealed off. But in court, Ab Hashemi played a phone message from Prometheus manager Mike Drouin telling the couple that air sampling for their apartment had come back "absolutely perfect" several days after the problem started.
"Unfortunately there's no hard and fast standards," for dealing with asbestos cleanup, Rodriguez said, adding that the company paid $700 in moving expenses to the Hashemis and offered to have clothes dry cleaned at a nearby cleaner.
"I believe I work for a fabulous company," Rodriguez said at one point.
The Hashemis argued that dry cleaning the clothes would not only be ineffective, according to standards of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but that it would contaminate other people's clothes as well.
Rodriguez disagreed, saying that the items in question, such as the couches, were "not destroyed."
But Judge Yep had the final say.
"I don't think they are useable after being exposed to asbestos four times the level," Yep said. "You will get your full amount, plus cost."
Concerned about the Hashemis, Yep asked, "Have you folks checked your health?" "How are you doing?"