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No Room in Court; Judge Takes Jurors to Inn

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Times Staff Writer

It was a funny looking courtroom.

Muzak played in the corridors. Tablecloths covered the bench. Chandeliers dangled from the ceiling. Business in a bar across the hallway went on as usual, and occasionally a suitcase on wheels rolled by.

“We’re improvising,” Burbank Superior Court Judge Thomas C. Murphy said Wednesday. “We’ve never done this before.”

150 Prospective Jurors

Murphy, his clerk, a bailiff, several attorneys and nearly 150 prospective jurors crowded into the ballroom at the Burbank Holiday Inn to select a jury for a $2-million lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles and the Department of Water and Power.

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The suit stems from a fire in 1980 that swept through the hills and canyons of Sun Valley, Tujunga, Sunland and Burbank. It was filed by homeowners and two insurance companies representing more than 100 residents of the four communities.

They claim that overhead power lines in Tujunga were in a “dangerous condition” and caused the fire. Winds spread the Tujunga fire south over 11,000 acres, destroying several homes and forcing hundreds of residents to evacuate.

In 1981, the city and the power department rejected claims filed by residents and the two insurance companies, the California Fair Plan Assn. and West American Insurance Co. The insurance firms sought about $1 million in reimbursements for claims they paid to customers in fire-damaged areas. Residents sought to recover losses not covered by insurance.

The plaintiffs claim that two power lines caused the fire when they touched and produced electrical sparks.

Assistant City Atty. Maynard Asper, who represents the power department in the suit, said the city contends that the electrical lines did not cause the fire. According to reports at the time, the blaze was one of several brush fires that swept through the Southland on Nov. 16, 1980.

Sixteen people, 12 jurors and 4 alternates, emerged from the ballroom courtroom after about four hours of probing by Murphy and the attorneys. The trial, expected to take six to eight weeks to complete, begins today in an ordinary courtroom in Burbank Superior Court.

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Murphy approached the unusual jury selection process with both seriousness and comic relief--an attitude that he described as “let’s make the best of it.” He joked with prospective jurors about the unconventional surroundings but later apologized several times when the room became stuffy and filled with the noises of sneezes and coughs.

When one prospective juror approached him to complain about the presence of a reporter and photographer, he lectured the group about the First Amendment. Moments later he poured a glass of water for a woman who was coughing.

Murphy acknowledged that the Holiday Inn, with inquisitive guests dressed in jogging suits peering into the ballroom, was less than ideally suited for the legal process. But the court considered the $225-a-day hotel room a practical solution to an unusual problem of numbers, he said.

The judge’s courtroom, which is just a block from the hotel, has room for only a few dozen people. With nearly 150 prospective jurors, there was simply not enough room, he said.

“Of course, it makes it much harder for us,” said Murphy, his voice partly smothered as a hotel operator paged a guest. “But it is more efficient this way. We can address all of them at once.”

Attorneys for the residents, insurance companies and the city requested a large pool of prospective jurors because of the number of litigants in the case. It was essential that the jurors and alternates have no connection to the City of Los Angeles, the insurance companies or the affected homeowners, the attorneys said.

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Murphy said that, with a jury selected and the trial ready to begin, he looks forward to settling back into his familiar Division B at the courthouse.

“They estimate it will be a 40-day trial,” Murphy said. “It will be nice to be in my own courtroom.”

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