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Few Fight State Over Malathion Damages : Spraying: Only 122 Southern Californians have lodged claims. Officials credit better warning system, but some residents say it’s difficult to win.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Despite 11 months of public outcry over coughing children, pitted car paint and aphid outbreaks from malathion spraying over Southern California, a surprisingly small number of damage complaints have been filed against the state--and so far, only one person has won.

State officials attribute the low number to a better system for warning the public about pesticide spraying and a better-run operation that has resulted in fewer mistakes. Critics counter that the low number reflects a realization among residents of just how difficult it is to prevail with a claim.

“It’s like fighting City Hall,” said Charlotte M. Bonin of Rowland Heights, who has filed a $2,754.14 claim, citing damage to car paint.

Of the 122 claims lodged since the beginning of the eradication campaign--mostly involving damaged cars--the state has agreed to pay only $400 to one Pasadena resident. By contrast, 26,000 claims were filed by Northern Californians during the Medfly infestation of 1980-82, and $400,000 eventually was paid to 710 people.

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Claims can be filed by mail with the State Board of Control in Sacramento, which is in charge of determining the state’s liability for damages, but it is an uphill struggle: The board has rejected all 16 cases it has considered so far.

The state considers itself not liable for any damages caused by spraying--as long as there was sufficient notice that the malathion-carrying helicopters were coming.

“The state holds that with proper notification, there is no liability,” said Curt Soderlund, State Board of Control deputy executive officer.

Added Pat Minyard, a deputy director of the eradication project: “As long as we made a reasonable effort to notify everybody, the claims are not valid. Our point of view is that we did everything we could do.”

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Unless new flies are found, the malathion spraying has been completed for all but a few pockets of Southern California.

Of the $149,000 worth of claims that have been filed, the vast majority involve cars spotted with malathion. There also have been requests for food, lodging, transportation, house paint and telephone costs related to the Medfly eradication project.

During the Northern California infestation, damages paid by the state stemmed from blatant mistakes, such as spraying on the wrong day or outside boundaries. Deputy Atty. Gen. Susan Oie, who handled the litigation during that infestation, said in one case, the state paid $129,000 to a car dealer whose lot was mistakenly sprayed by the state’s helicopters.

Although state officials said those sort of errors were avoided in the Southern California infestation, critics of the eradication effort aren’t convinced. They argue that people simply recognize it is futile to request reimbursement for Medfly related damages.

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Patty Prickett, coordinator of the anti-malathion group Residents Against Spraying Pesticides, noted that even elected officials in some cities tried and failed to halt the spraying, and suggested that these failures fed a sense of futility.

“I think people feel powerless,” she said.

Some try anyway. Bonin was passing through a spray zone on a freeway when her car was covered with malathion. The paint on her five-day-old Nissan Maxima was pitted from the misty spray, she said. An estimate from a body shop put the cost of repainting the car at $2,754.14.

“I’m furious,” she said. “It was a brand new car. I had even bought a car cover to use at home.”

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Bonin’s claim is pending, although she said she has little confidence of winning.

Theresa A. Spalik, a computer programmer formerly of Binghamton, N.Y., spent four days driving across the country and arrived at her aunt’s home in Bellflower on the night the city was to be sprayed with malathion. She had never heard of the Medfly eradication effort.

She parked her powder blue 1986 Chevrolet Nova outside. A few days later, when she washed the car, she found hundreds of tiny pits covering the hood.

She filed a claim for $85 in January, saying she was never notified of the spraying. “How was I supposed to know?” she asked.

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Spalik’s claim was rejected. Like everyone else, she can now take her case to small claims court. But after five months, she said: “I mean, it’s $85. I can’t believe they’re making such a big deal out of this.”

One unusual claim blames sterile Medflies used to disrupt the breeding of wild Medflies for a damaged paint job on a house.

In January, Martin O’Connor was repainting his Whittier house when state workers released a load of sterile flies on his street. The flies, he said, swarmed toward his house, apparently attracted by the odor of the paint. They smashed into the freshly painted walls and, in their frenzy to escape, embedded themselves in the sticky white enamel.

“God in heaven, those flies were coming at us by the thousands,” said O’Connor, 68. “Those doggone things stayed on there alive for four days, still squirming around.”

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He filed a claim in February for $800. The case is pending.

The only successful case against the state was won by John Poole of Pasadena, an attorney who bypassed the usual claims process and sued the state in Superior Court.

Poole owns a two-story Craftsman home in Pasadena known as the Blacker House. The 83-year-old landmark, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is considered one of the finest Craftsman style homes in the country.

On a hunch, Poole inspected his house in March for damage from malathion spraying and found thousands of tiny black dots on the copper rain gutters.

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“These are works of art as far as I’m concerned,” Poole said. “They are priceless.”

He lost the first round of his suit, but as he was preparing to renew the legal fight, the state agreed to settle by paying half of the $800 it would cost to cover the gutters with plastic.

Deputy Atty. Gen. Charles Getz, the Sacramento-based official who has handled all of the legal challenges against the state’s spraying program, said he agreed to the payment because of the house’s historic nature and the unusual hardship Poole would have faced if he had been forced to cover the gutters himself.

“His case is unique and we were trying to be fair and be good neighbors,” Getz said, adding that it also was probably less expensive to pay Poole than fight him in court.

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How to Press Damage Claim Against State

Those seeking to file a claim against the state should write the State Board of Control in Sacramento, stating the type of damage, the cause, date, time and location where it occurred. The board will reply with a claim form requesting more detailed information. The form must be returned within six months of when the damage occurred. A board decision will be made at a public hearing; attendance by the claimant is not required. If a claim is rejected, a claimant has six months from the date of denial to sue in the courts.

Claims should be submitted to:

State Board of Control

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Government Claims Program

P.O. Box 3035

Sacramento, CA

95812-3035

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Phone: (916) 323-3564


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