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Downey Studios Sues Union, Alleging False Claims of Hazards

The prop workers group spread rumors of safety problems at the facility despite a clean bill of health, the firm says.

November 18, 2005|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

Downey Studios, the sprawling movie production center and former aerospace plant that was once the hub of America's space race, is suing the Hollywood union that represents prop workers, alleging that it spread "false rumors" of health hazards at the facility.

The Los Angeles County Superior Court lawsuit, filed Tuesday, alleges that Local 44 of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees in North Hollywood and its business agent, Ronnie Cunningham, libeled the company by repeatedly making false claims of unsafe working conditions to its members and to studio representatives.

The union alleges that workers who built props for the DreamWorks SKG movie "The Island" during production in 2004 and this year were sickened after being exposed to asbestos, mold and various heavy metals at the 1-million-square-foot facility 17 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles.

More than 30 members of Local 44 have filed workers' compensation claims alleging that they experienced health problems after working at the studio, with many complaining of prolonged, flu-like symptoms as well as lesions and recurring infections.

"We believe that Local 44 acted properly and lawfully communicated with its members regarding their concerns about safety conditions at Downey," said attorney Lewis Levy, who represents Local 44. "We expect to fully prevail and be exonerated."

Downey executives countered that the complaints were spurious, citing extensive environmental testing that concluded the former Boeing Co. facility was a "healthy and safe environment."

The suit notes that a senior union official at one point wrote a letter to Downey Studios apologizing for an earlier letter from the union that suggested there were unhealthy work conditions at the site.

Even though test results from three separate firms gave the facility a clean bill of health, the suit alleges, Cunningham continued to warn union members about potential health hazards, discouraging some from working there and hurting potential business deals with such studios as Sony Pictures Entertainment and Paramount Pictures Corp.

"It is clear that defendants have a vendetta against Downey and will not let the truth interfere with their apparent mission to shut down Downey Studios," the complaint states.

Bruce Cohen, spokesman for the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, said the union did not comment on pending litigation. Cunningham could not be reached for comment.

Since closing in 1999, the former aerospace plant, where Apollo spacecraft and space shuttles were assembled, has become a thriving film production center. In addition to "The Island," films including "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" and "Van Helsing" were shot at the facility. The comedy sequel "The Santa Clause 3" is currently being shot there.

The studio, acquired by Los Angeles-based Industrial Realty Group last year, is part of a large-scale redevelopment of the 160-acre site that includes a 400,000-square-foot shopping center and a Kaiser Permanente hospital.

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