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An Elk Keeps an Eagle Eye on This Courtroom : Justice: The case of some homeowners versus a condo developer is being tried at an Elks Lodge in Redondo Beach. It is the first jury trial to be transferred out of Torrance Superior Court and into rented space as part of a program to reduce a backlog of civil cases.


The throne of the Exalted Ruler was empty. The Esteemed Leading Knight was nowhere to be found. And the rest of the brothers from the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, Lodge No. 1378 in Redondo Beach, were not to meet until Tuesday night.

But, despite the pronounced absence of the native species, the Elks Lodge in Redondo Beach was alive with activity every workday this week.

Holding forth in the lodge room for up to four months will be the judge, jury and combatants in a civil lawsuit. The case of the Manitoba West Owners Assn. versus developer Don S. Levin is the first jury trial to be transferred out of Torrance Superior Court into rented space as part of a program to cut the backlog of civil cases throughout the county.

In the lawsuit, filed nearly six years ago, 187 members of the owners association maintain that their condominiums in the Manitoba West development in Playa del Rey have suffered serious damage because of shoddy construction.

Condominium owner Sharon Rifelli took the stand Tuesday as the trial's first witness and said her home was repeatedly soaked with rainwater that seeped through a leaky ceiling. "Standing on the carpet, it was like a sponge that had not been wrung out," Rifelli said. "It was like a flood."

Lawyers for Levin and five subcontractors told the jury in their opening statements that construction of the condominiums in 1979 and 1980 was up to industry standards and that faulty maintenance, which is the province of the condominium association, explains many of the buildings' problems.

The trial is expected to last four months. That's far too long to tie up a courtroom or one of Torrance's 11 sitting judges for a civil case. So they will pay the Elks $200 a day to use the lodge at 315 The Esplanade, next to the Redondo Beach Pier, to try this case. In addition, they have assigned it to retired Superior Court Judge George R. Perkovich Jr.

"There was no way they were going to try that case in the courthouse," said Arnold Pena, coordinator of Los Angeles County's civil Superior Courts. "Torrance doesn't have any courtrooms that are vacant, and they couldn't spare the space for that long."

There are 460 civil cases set for trial in Torrance and 2,352 more waiting for a trial date. The average civil case takes 2 1/3 years to come to trial, though contentious cases can take much longer.

Under the so-called "rent-a-judge" program, the county previously used rooms at the Torrance Marriott for hearings or non-jury trials. But the hotel could not assure court officials that they could get a room big enough for a lengthy jury trial.

Perkovich, a former member of the Inglewood and San Pedro Elks lodges, knew that lodge rooms are vacant during the day, so he called the Redondo Beach lodge and arranged the rental.

On the first day of trial Tuesday in the incongruous setting, Perkovich forsook the green upholstered throne of the Exalted Ruler in favor of a well-worn leather swivel chair he had brought with him.

Mounted on the wall above the judge's head is not the seal of the state of California but the head of a 12-point buck elk.

It is one of four elk trophies in the room. Hanging from the ceiling is the Star of Fidelity--one of Elkdom's ritual symbols--alongside a large mirrored ball that provides ambience during ballroom dances.

The surroundings will not be an obstacle to justice. "I can try them in a tent if I have to," the judge said.

Minor modifications were made on the first day of trial. At the request of lawyers for the builders, spectators will not be able to sit in the seats across from the jury. Perkovich agreed that the reactions of spectators could distract or affect jurors.

The judge also ordered during breaks that jurors remain in the Exalted Ruler's office, which has been converted to a jury room. "I've got to run this at least halfway like a courtroom," the judge said.

Some of the Manitoba West homeowners said they would have preferred a traditional courtroom.

"I don't like it here," said Gail Browning. "It's makeshift. It takes away from the seriousness of the case. It's like having a play on a basketball court."

Another homeowner complained that spectators seats along one wall are too far away from the judge and witnesses. "We're just staring across at a blank wall," he said.

In a case with at least $15 million in damages at stake, it will take more than a few stuffed elk heads to distract a dozen lawyers from their arguments.

"As long as the jury is able to take the proceedings seriously, despite the surroundings, it's fine," said John Wallace, an attorney for one subcontractor. "I think they will."

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