One of Maria Godinez's babies dropped a feeding bottle in a Skid Row apartment, and before she could pick it up, a big rat scampered across the floor and began chewing at the bottle's rubber nipple, Godinez told a news conference in Los Angeles on Wednesday.
The rats still infest the apartment house, though Godinez has moved out.
But Wednesday, Godinez and her five daughters received $30,000, the largest award among the 14 families that shared a $200,000 out-of-court settlement against the owners of the building.
Lawyer Nancy Mintie of the Inner City Law Center said it was the largest settlement ever against a Skid Row landlord in Los Angeles. Mintie said the center filed a lawsuit on behalf of the 14 families in Los Angeles Superior Court on March 26, 1984, claiming that the apartments were uninhabitable. The case was based on the testimony of tenants and reports from numerous inspections by the Los Angeles County Health Services Department.
Named as defendants were Stanford 660 South Ltd., the partnership that owns Stanford Apartments at 660 S. Stanford Ave.; MN Management Co. Inc., which managed the property; Melvyn Nachman, a member of the partnership and president of MN Management, and John Jerotz, who is also a partner in Stanford 660 South Ltd.
The court issued a temporary restraining order and two preliminary injunctions ordering the owners to improve conditions. The residents alleged that the defendants had not adequately complied, and a contempt hearing was pending when the case was settled a week ago.
Nachman was not in his office Wednesday and could not be reached for comment. Jerotz also could not be reached.
Mintie described the complainants as "14 impoverished Hispanic families" who lived in a building of crumbling walls and ceilings.
"Big chunks of plaster would fall off the ceilings on top of them in their beds or while they were cooking in their kitchens and hit them on the heads," she said.
Plumbing in the building was always breaking down, she said, and "in some apartments, sewage from broken pipes would leak through the ceilings."
"But the most nightmarish aspect of living in this building was the fact that it was overrun with large rats," she said.
While Mintie spoke, she had on the desk in front of her, preserved in liquid in a jar, a huge rat at least 18 inches from nose to tip of tail.
"This is one of the rats that plaintiff Maria Godinez caught in her apartment," Mintie said.
Godinez, surrounded by her five young daughters, said rats ran over clothes and chewed the television cord. On one occasion, she and her husband tried to kill one rat "but it jumped over us, scratching us with its claws," she said.
"My husband managed to hit it with a broom," she said.
All but two of the 14 families have left Stanford Apartments.
Sabina de la Cruz is still there. She pays $245 a month for her cramped quarters, where she lives with her husband and six children ranging from 5 to 17 years old. Chunks of plaster have fallen off the walls, leaving the wooden laths exposed. She has lived there for two years and would like to leave.
"But where would we go?" she asked. "You can't get anything better at this price with so many children."
Mintie distributed to the 14 women who brought the action checks totaling $63,000 for the immediate needs of their families. Then she announced that $104,000 would be set aside in trust funds for each of the 24 children from the families.
The remaining $33,000, she said, would be retained by the Inner City Law Center as attorney fees and would enable the center to continue to provide free legal help for Skid Row residents.