BELL GARDENS : Families Win $500,000 Suit Against Landlord

Five families who sued their landlord for ignoring substandard living conditions have been awarded more than $500,000 to cover back rent and emotional distress.

"This is one for the good guys," said Nelson L. Cohen, attorney for the plaintiffs. "These are people who bring home $1,000 a month to feed a family of four. They're thrilled."

The property owner, Dr. Charles Sassoon, a Walnut Park-based obstetrician, was ordered on April 1 to pay $19,740 in back rent, $168,000 for distress, $350,000 in punitive damages, and about $31,000 in interest, Cohen said. The award is to be split among the five families.

Sassoon, however, said he would appeal. The plaintiffs "don't deserve anything," he said. "I should be paid for what they did to me."

The Norwalk Superior Court jury found that Sassoon ignored tenants' complaints of unsafe and unhealthful living conditions that ranged from rat infestation to raw sewage and numerous other code violations.

City building inspector Carlos Levario, who was a key witness for the prosecution, testified that the city inspected the 11-unit apartment complex at 5516 Gotham St. about 40 times over an 18-month period beginning in July, 1991, in an effort to solve problems. Most of the other tenants in the building had moved away by the time the five families filed suit, Cohen said.

One of the worse violations, Levario discovered, was an illegal garage conversion where sewage flowed under a baby's crib. "It was one of the worst properties I'd been in," Levario said. A videotape documenting conditions at the property helped sway the jury, Levario said.

In 1992, Sassoon pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of failing to correct substandard living conditions at the building and was sentenced to three years' probation and fined $2,500. Sassoon asserted that the tenants vandalized the property and then called city inspectors in a ruse to win free rent.

"I have been treated very unjustly," Sassoon said last week. "Before they left, they broke the place and took pictures. I treated them very fairly. I did everything possible to keep the place in the best way possible that I could."

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