Schoolyard Nausea Prompts Charges : Van Nuys Spa Maker Goes on Trial

Times Staff Writer

A Van Nuys company that makes whirlpool baths and its chief executive went on trial Friday on charges they were responsible for noxious odors that sickened pupils and teachers at Sylvan Park Elementary School in 1983 and 1984.

Custom Home Spas Inc. and its president, Al Weaver, are accused of allowing styrene fumes from the manufacture of the fiberglass baths to drift onto the schoolyard about 100 yards away, where more than 100 pupils and 25 teachers reported suffering headaches and nausea in May, 1984, according to school officials.

After five days of jury selection in Los Angeles Municipal Court, a 12-member panel Friday heard the first testimony in a trial both sides estimate will last four weeks. Deputy City Atty. Keith Pritsker said he may call as many as 40 witnesses, including teachers, students, meteorologists and inspectors from the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

The spa firm is accused of eight separate violations of the state Health and Safety Code and air-district regulations. Weaver is named in nine counts. The company, if convicted on all counts, could be fined a maximum of $8,000, whereas Weaver could be fined a maximum of $9,000 and sentenced to 4 1/2 years in jail.

Numerous Discharges Alleged

Pritsker said he intends to prove that “on numerous occasions between September of 1983 and the end of May of 1984" the company discharged enough styrene into the air to annoy or sicken people downwind, including teachers and students at the elementary school and a neighboring child-care center.


Defense attorney Warren McCament, arguing that the school is in an industrial area that contains many sources of odors, said prosecutors have the wrong company and the wrong man. “Our defense in this case is that Custom Home Spas and Mr. Weaver didn’t do it,” he said.

Three other individuals have been charged in the case. Plant manager Don Lindberg entered a no-contest plea to a single count on Sept. 9. He was placed on probation for two years, ordered to pay a $150 fine, and agreed to be a prosecution witness, according to Pritsker.

Louis Octavio and Salvador Medina, two other company employees, have yet to be tried.

‘Broke My Company’

Weaver, a 65-year-old Sylmar resident, said that, even if he is acquitted, he will have been punished because the accusations “broke my company completely.”

In June, 1984, the South Coast Air Quality Management District revoked the permits the company needed to operate. Weaver said he has since contracted with another hot-tub manufacturer to fill his orders, but that sales declined greatly.

Asked if he would attempt to reopen the factory in a new location, Weaver said, “Financially, right now I couldn’t open a popcorn stand.”

McCament brought Weaver’s financial woes before Municipal Judge Barbara A. Meier, asking the court Thursday for $1,500 to help the defense pay for expert witnesses. However, Meier denied the request, saying she had seen no evidence that Weaver is indigent.

The trial had been delayed several times, most recently last spring when McCament became ill. The case was then delayed through summer because some of the students and teachers to be called as witnesses were on vacation.