Los Angeles, CA – September 27, 2023
On September 26, 2023, Riley | Ersoff LLP, filed a complaint in the Los Angeles Superior Court against Southwestern Law School and two property management companies for childhood lead poisoning and severe emotional distress.
The named plaintiffs are Carina Castaneda and her two children, lead-poisoned Isaias Melendez, age 3, Iyse Melendez, age 1, and Ms. Castaneda’s mother, Maria Jesus Salazar Garcia, age 73. The named defendants are Southwestern Law School, Charles Dunn Real Estate Services, Inc., and Beach Front Property Management, Inc.
Plaintiffs’ complaint alleges that Southwestern failed to properly own, operate, and manage an apartment building that is adjacent to the Southwestern campus in the mid-city area of Los Angeles. The address of the apartment building identified in plaintiffs’ complaint is 666 Shatto Pl., Los Angeles, CA 90005.
Plaintiffs’ complaint alleges that Southwestern knowingly and intentionally ignored the 666 Shatto Pl. property, failed to make repairs, and allowed it to deteriorate to the point where it was covered in dangerous and toxic deteriorated lead-based paint, infested with cockroaches, damaged by chronic water leaks, and other defects consistent with slum housing.
Lead poisoning is a major health threat to young children. California Health & Safety Code, Section 124125 provides that “childhood lead exposure represents the most significant childhood environmental health problem in the state . . . ” Children can become exposed to deteriorated lead-based paint and lead contaminated dust in older homes and apartment buildings. Lead-based paint was effectively banned by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1978. The 666 Shatto Pl. property was built in 1923. Properties built between 1920 and 1940 have more than a 70% chance of containing lead-based paint.
Deteriorated lead-based paint and resulting lead-contaminated dust is the primary cause of lead poisoning in the United States. Toddlers and young children contract lead poisoning through normal hand-to-mouth behavior. Pursuant to California law, all residential properties built prior to 1978 are presumed to contain lead-based paint as a matter of law. California and local law is clear that all owners of residential properties are responsible for making sure that their rental properties do not contain deteriorated lead-based paint, lead-contaminated dust, or other lead hazards.
Lead testing conducted by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program and professional lead testing company Barr & Clark determined that the 666 Shatto Pl. property was covered in deteriorated lead-based paint. Plaintiffs’ complaint alleges that the property was uninhabitable and constituted a lead hazard pursuant to Civil Code, Section 1941.1, and Health & Safety Code, Section 17920.10.
Following a routine blood test in February 2023, Isaias was found to be lead poisoned with a blood lead level of 9.5 mcg/dL, which is more than two (2) times the reference value established by the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC, the Environmental Protection Agency, the California Department of Public Health Lead, and every major scientific organization which has studied the effects of lead on the human body agree that there is no safe blood lead level. These same organizations agree that blood lead levels such as those suffered by Isaias may result in permanent loss of full-scale IQ, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, speech and language disorders, aggression, and/or other neurological, behavioral, and physiological deficits.
Isaias was born with autism spectrum disorder. Per Paul Rogers MD, a developmental pediatrician who has treated or supervised the treatment of more than 200 children with lead poisoning, allowing a child with autism spectrum disorder to be exposed to and ingest deteriorated lead-based paint or lead contaminated dust is disastrous. As stated by Dr. Rogers, “like pouring gasoline on a fire, Isaias’s elevated blood lead levels worsened the brain impairments suffered by Isaias due to his autism spectrum disorder.” Dr. Rogers diagnosed Isaias with cognitive deficits, attention disorder, disruptive behavior disorder, chronic toxic stress – all of which were caused or contributed to by Isaias’ lead poisoning, chronic cockroach bites, and exposure to slum housing conditions.
Pediatric neuropsychologist Jose Fuentes PhD states that “Isaias exhibits deficits across multiple neuropsychological domains, including cognitive, language, attention, concentration, motor functioning, and adaptive functioning.” Dr. Fuentes has opined that “elevated blood levels, and chronic toxic stress were substantial factors in causing Isaias’ deficits.” Dr. Rogers and Dr. Fuentes agree that Isaias will require a life-time of medical and therapeutic care as a result of his lead poisoning.
The 666 Shatto Pl. is next door to the Southwestern Law School campus. The school also owns and manages The Residences at 7th, a luxury apartment complex used to house its law students. The Residences at 7th is only steps away from the apartment building that ruined young Isaias’ life. Whereas, the Residences at 7th offers Southwestern’s law students fully furnished apartments complete with wide-screen televisions and washer/dryers and other luxuries, the degraded, deteriorated, and dangerous 666 Shatto Pl. property is occupied by low-income Hispanic tenants who largely live paycheck to paycheck.
Attorney Grant Riley says “Southwestern should be ashamed of what they’ve done to this little boy. Southwestern is 100% responsible for the condition of the 666 Shatto Pl. property. It does not matter that Southwestern hired one or more property management companies to manage the property. Property management is a non-delegable duty. Southwestern cannot argue that it was not responsible for the health and safety of the Castaneda family and the other tenants at the property.”
Attorney Victoria Ersoff says “lead poisoning is 100% preventable but only when landlords like Southwestern repair and maintain their properties on a regular basis. Southwestern failed to do this and destroyed a little boy’s future. The fact that Southwestern is finally making repairs to the 666 Shatto Pl. property is sad example of too little too late.”
Ms. Ersoff also says that “the lead-based paint at the 666 Shatto Pl. property was in absolutely horrific condition. You could see paint peeled away down to bare wood. This was not an isolated one-time accident. The 666 Shatto Pl. property did not fall apart over night. This was a choice, a decision by Southwestern to prioritize its multi-million dollar campus over the health and safety of a young family. Because of Southwestern’s negligence, Isaias will never live a normal life.”
Mr. Riley also states that “what’s worse is that Southwestern owns a beautiful apartment building for its law students less than a block away from the 666 Shatto Pl. property. Southwestern is a law school. Southwestern knows the law, it teaches the law, yet it was more than willing to allow the Castaneda family to be exposed to massive amounts of deteriorated lead-based paint, cockroaches, and other slum housing conditions in violation of the law. Southwestern’s conduct was both hypocritical and inexcusable. How can Southwestern state on its website that its core values include equity, justice, and protecting the health and well-being of the community, when they allow their own tenants to live in blatantly dangerous and toxic conditions?”
Grant Riley, Victoria Ersoff, and Riley | Ersoff LLP have prosecuted numerous lead poisoning cases in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Lead poisoning remains a serious health threat to young children who live in homes built prior to 1978. Deteriorated lead-based paint and lead contaminated dust is the number one cause of childhood lead poisoning in the United States.