After being asked to "send a message" to California mobile home park operators, a jury assessed almost $500,000 in punitive damages Friday against a park which tried to illegally force residents out.
The verdict was against Planned Management Inc., a Utah firm that runs the Country Club Mobile Manor Park in Santa Ana and 32 other mobile home parks in western states.
It was the first jury verdict in the state in any case involving alleged violations of a state law designed to protect mobile home owners.
"It's a terrific message to the park owners," said Marie L. Malone, president of the Golden State Mobile Home Owners League, which claims 182,000 members and 25% of all mobile home owners in California. The average age of association members is 62, Malone said.
"It says the law on the books is for real and they (park operators) must abide by it," Malone declared.
Before the law was passed in 1983, mobile home park operators could evict anyone whose mobile home was more than 17 years old. Today, residents may be evicted only if their mobile homes fail to meet health and safety codes.
In the case, tried before Orange County Superior Court Judge Jerrold S. Oliver, jurors found that the park operators used a variety of illegal tactics to try to force Daniel G. Kimmel and his wife to move, rather than sell their older mobile home.
When they were unable to sell or move, the Kimmels were essentially "imprisoned" in their mobile home for almost two years, according to their attorney, R. Richard Farnell. He told jurors that managers of the Santa Ana park preferred attracting new homes to the park, rather than to allow resale of older homes already there.
The jury gave the Kimmels $275,000 in punitive damages, designed to punish park operators for wrongdoing and make an example of their wrongdoing. The Kimmels also received $50,000 in general damages for emotional distress.
A second plaintiff, Dianne L. Jeffries, 35, said she had to wait over a year to sell her mobile home because of the tactics used by park owners. She was awarded $220,000 in punitive damages and $25,000 for emotional distress.
Jeffries, now the owner of a single family home, said she was "very pleased."
"I just wanted to hear that I won, not only for myself but for all the other people who have gone through the same thing," Jeffries said. "I've met a lot of people and had to watch them bow their heads and leave their homes."
To discourage sale of the Kimmels' home, park managers threatened to require costly upgrading and threatened large rent hikes if it changed hands, according to evidence at the two-week trial.
Farnell urged jurors to use the verdict to "speak out as you've never spoken out before" and help people like the Kimmels, "who don't have the financial resources or the energy to fight."
Defense lawyer Timothy T. Tierney claimed that park management just wanted to maintain and enhance property values at the park. Tierney said that an officer of Planned Management Inc. who testified "wanted to protect the investments of the residents and increase the value of the investment."
"They're making a ton of money on that park," Farnell countered. "They want to make more. There's nothing wrong with that, but they have to follow the law."
The jury returned these punitive damages against four defendants:
- Planned Management Inc., which managed the park under contract, $165,000.
- The owner of the land, a trust represented by Margaret Goland, $200,000.
- John Chamberlain, an officer and part owner of Planned Management, individually for $90,000.
- Vaughn Drage, a mobile home salesman and Planned Management agent, $40,000.
Tierney said his clients were "considering an appeal."
Farnell, who said he was "pleasantly surprised" by the verdict, added:
"It's necessary because park owners make a heck of a lot of money and there's no way to punish them unless you take a heck of a lot of money away from them. There's no other way to get their attention.
"You've got to rap them up side the head," he declared.
League president Malone said the new law was passed at a time of a critical shortage of spaces in mobile home parks--one of the least expensive forms of housing available. No new parks were built in California between 1976 and 1983, she added.
"The reason the law was passed was because owners were abusing residents," Malone said. "People weren't allowed to sell their homes, and the home wasn't worth anything outside the park because there was no room. People lost a tremendous amount of money."