Sending a strong message to landlords, a Los Angeles jury ordered the owners of a Hollywood apartment building to pay nearly $6 million Wednesday to a 9-year-old boy who was severely burned trying to warm his hands on the open flame of a gas stove because the apartment's heater did not work.
The jury of eight women and four men decided that Nathan Korman and Korman Center Enterprises should pay $2.5 million in general damages plus $3.3 million in punitive damages for failing to provide heating in the family's $600-a-month apartment.
"I just want to tell landlords to care about tenants like you care about your mother and father," said Endria Castillo, a county parks worker and mother of Quantez, the injured boy. "I'm sure it would have been a whole lot cheaper" to repair the building's heating units.
Quantez, dressed in a white button-down shirt, fidgeted as he sat at the counsel table with his lawyer, Garo Mardirossian. The verdict was returned in the downtown courtroom of Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Lee Smalley Edmon.
Outside court, a female alternate juror hugged Endria.
Juror Mike Goodrich of San Gabriel said Korman had disregarded his legal responsibility to provide heat for his low-income tenants "He knew what the law was," Goodrich said. "He just didn't want to obey it. It was just a shame that something like that happened."
Korman, who plaintiffs say owns 12 apartment buildings in and around Los Angeles, was not in court Wednesday.
His attorney, Russell Wollman, said, "We are disappointed by the verdict," but declined to say if the case would be appealed.
Mardirossian said the jury's message to landlords was clear: "Their first and foremost responsibility is to those tenants.... They've got to have heat. They've got to have water. They've got to have electricity."
Castillo moved with her two boys into Korman's building at 1002 N. Mariposa St. in July 2000 and soon learned that the wall heater was not connected to the gas line, according to Mardirossian's trial papers.
She complained a few times and a handyman was sent out but, according to Castillo, the heater never worked.
Without a fireplace, Castillo heated her family's cold and drafty apartment by turning on the burners of the gas stove, Mardirossian said. She could not afford to buy a space heater on the money she brought home -- less than $1,000 a month, he said.
Then, four days before Christmas 2000, Quantez woke up in the middle of the night and went into the kitchen for a glass of water, the lawsuit said.
With the outside temperature dropping into the 40s, the then-6-year-old stopped by the lighted stove to warm his hands, plaintiffs said. His pajamas ignited and the boy suffered third-degree burns to his right arm, shoulder and back.
Quantez's injuries were not visible through his long-sleeve shirt, but his attorney said the boy would require years of treatment. His mother said he is still a smart and happy child but he is "more self-conscious," noticing when people stare at him.
The jury initially awarded the boy $3.2 million in general damages, but reduced that to reflect the carelessness of others.
The fourth-grader, who dreams of playing football and going to UCLA, said he wanted to use the money to buy video games, a go-kart and a Chevy Tahoe for his 6-year-old brother, Elmer. He also said his mother had talked of buying a home "in, like, Culver City."