Mobile-home Park Owners Liable for Tree Damage, Judge Rules

Article by ERIN MASSEY, Staff Writer, North County Times

VISTA, California

A Superior Court judge sided with two elderly women and ruled this week that mobilehome park owners must pay for any tree removal on the park property.

Judge Joe O. Littlejohn issued his decision on the case this week after an appeals hearing in early June.  In a ruling released this week, he wrote that the mobile-home park lease makes tree maintenance the park owner’s responsibility.

“Park owners will not be heard to deny liability because (they) failed to act within a reasonably timely and    appropriate manner in accordance with the conditions and spirit of mobile park lease agreements,” he wrote.

Littlejohn’s decision upheld the original ruling awarding one park tenant, Dolores “Dee” Roberts, $3000 plus $50– in attorney’s expenses.  He awarded a second park tenant Irene Hundley, $1500 plus $20 for attorney costs.

The issue first arose a year ago when Hundley, 71, was taken to small claims court by Lake Bernardo Mobile Home Park’s owner, Phil Hohnstein.  Hohnstein asked her to pay a $1550 bill for removing an ash tree planted on her lot before she arrived in 1983, she said.

Hundley said Friday that she is relieved with the ruling and wants to put the dispute behind her.

“I am just so very happy because there was no way I could get enough money to pay it” she said of the tree   removal.  Now, I just want to move and find peace and quiet.  This has been a year of nothing but hell and tension and worries.”

Hundley’s case was heard jointly with a suit filed by Ponderosa Mobile Home Park against Roberts for $750 to remove a palm tree on the land where Roberts’ mobile home now sits.  Roberts claims the tree caused more than $4,000 damage to her residents requiring her to replace the supports beneath her mobilehome.  “I am happy with the decision because somebody had to stand up for all of us mobile home park residents,” Roberts said.  “At lease I showed them that they can stand up for their rights now.”

Mayor Pro Tem June Rady, who attended the hearings and publicly supported the two women, applauded them on Friday.

“I want people to know how proud I am of Irene Hundley and Dee Roberts for having the courage to stand up to the intimidation and harassment that was clearly put upon them by the park owners,” she said.  “They were absolutely correct in standing for what was fair and right and reasonable.”

Both elderly women told the judge in June that they couldn’t pay the cost of removing the trees, saying they depend on subsidized housing assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The park owners eventually dropped their claims against the women, (see Page 11, PAIR WINS LAWSUIT)(PAIR WINS LAWSUIT, continued from Page 10)

who then filed cross-complaints for damages the trees caused to their mobile homes.  The small claims court judge sided with the tenants on March 27.

The park owners, represented by Orange-based attorney Terry Dowdall, appealed the decision to Littlejohn. Dowdall did not return repeated phone calls this week.

At the appeal hearing, Dowdall told the judge that the tenants want to maintain their own yards and so should be responsible for any damage caused by the trees there.

The tenants attorney is Bernadette Probus, a housing attorney for Legal Aid Society of San Diego.     Probus argued during the hearing that her clients were not given a choice in the landscaping around their mobile homes and should not be held responsible for the upkeep.

Steven Nelson, Escondido’s deputy city attorney wrote in a brief to the court that the city considers trees to be capital improvement costs and therefore the landlord’s responsibility