Lawsuits Claim Hillside Home Had Fatal Flaw : Courts: Families of Sherman Oaks couple killed in quake contend that buyers were not told about an engineering report that had scared off another prospective buyer.
Marc Yobs knew he wanted the house from the moment he walked inside and, like everyone else who saw it, he was awe-struck by the view.
From its hillside perch in Sherman Oaks, nothing stood between the contemporary home’s north-facing wall of glass and the sweeping valley vista below. “Not even rooftops,” said Yobs’ brother, Dave. “Just a spectacular sight.” The view was so compelling that Yobs, a barely 30-year-old rising manager in a film production company, stretched his budget to meet the $400,000 asking price and with his longtime girlfriend, Karen Osterholt, moved into the house at 3855 Sherwood Place on Valentine’s Day, 1992.
Nearly two years later, they were killed when their aerie collapsed in the Northridge quake and slid down the hill whose view had been so seductive.
Whether Yobs was fatally misled during the sale has become the subject of twin wrongful-death suits filed last month by his and Osterholt’s families in Los Angeles Superior Court. The central allegation in both is that the sellers--a group of investors led by Los Angeles attorney Lawrence R. Gordon--withheld a critical engineering report that had scared off another prospective buyer.
“This man should just not be able to go on with his life like nothing happened,” Dave Yobs said recently in reference to Gordon. “He should answer to what he did.”
Gordon and his alleged partners--Daniel J. Eget, Nathan J. Reese, and contractor Richard Robinson and his wife, Margarette--have either refused to comment, not returned phone calls or could not be reached.
Osterholt’s relatives, who have filed a palimony suit against Yobs’ parents over an estate that includes his $300,000 life-insurance policy, also declined to be interviewed for this article.
But as Dave Yobs and his family’s attorneys described it, the story of how Osterholt and Marc Yobs got the house is filled with sad twists and turns, including the fact that Dave Yobs, a Woodland Hills real estate agent, represented his younger brother in the purchase.
The brothers began looking in the winter of 1992, Dave Yobs said, concentrating in the Sherman Oaks-Studio City area so that Yobs would have an easy commute to his office in Hollywood.
Osterholt and Yobs’ parents came along on the day they went to Sherwood Place, and when they drove away his mother Margaret teased Yobs--her ambitious firebrand of a younger son--"Now that’s a Marc house.”
In retrospect, Dave Yobs said, there were several unusual aspects to the sale, including the sellers’ being unavailable to directly discuss the deal.
One query involved a name change on the title the brothers noticed when the sale was about to close, from Richard and Margarette Robinson as the sellers to a company called Danat Investment. Yobs’ attorney, Alexander Robertson IV, alleges that Gordon is connected to Danat, through its partners Eget and Reese.
When the brothers asked about the switch, according to Dave Yobs, they were told it was done for tax purposes, which seemed plausible.
What they weren’t told, the lawsuits claim, was that the title holder had changed twice--from the Robinsons to a company called Properties Du Monde Inc. and then to Danat. The day after that title transfer, Properties Du Monde--whose officers included Gordon and the Robinsons--was dissolved as a corporation, the lawsuits claim.
Robertson says both companies were used to insulate Gordon and his partners from responsibility for defects in the extensively remodeled house.
“This is an extraordinarily high level of activity for a 30-year-old single-family home in the Valley,” Robertson said in an interview. A law firm associate, Christina S. Kruger, added, “It’s not unusual for a high-rise office building with all sorts of corporate entities involved. But for a single-family home in the Valley, yes.”
Kruger, who grew up with the Yobs brothers in Woodland Hills, was approached by mutual friends at Yobs and Osterholt’s joint funeral and asked to investigate. Although many houses in the neighborhood suffered severe damage in the quake, theirs was the only one to collapse.
“Everyone wanted to know, ‘Why this house?’ ” Kruger said. Once she and Robertson, who specialize in construction-defect litigation, began looking into the matter, they found more and more troubling evidence, including the title chain, which they said took their trained staff six months to piece together.
But the most disturbing information came directly to Dave Yobs, an affable 34-year-old former baseball player who has worked in the real-estate business in the Valley for 8 1/2 years. Several weeks after the funeral, a contact phoned Dave Yobs and said he had some confidential information that he couldn’t in good conscience withhold from the grieving family.
It was an engineer’s report, commissioned by the other buyer, that noted a serious deformation in the foundation and said further investigation was warranted to determine the cause of the bulging concrete.
Although the brief report by the Oro Engineering Corp. was dryly worded and the engineer’s inspection had been cursory, his findings were enough to dissuade his client, a young corporate manager named Jeffrey Malmberg, from going through with the sale even though he, too, had been enthralled by the view.
“I couldn’t in good conscience recommend that he buy the piece of property,” engineer Robert J. Shubeck said in a phone interview.
“The property had an unbelievable view,” Shubeck continued. “It was so very difficult for somebody to pass on a house like that.”
Gordon and the Robinsons not only knew about the report’s conclusions, but they resisted Malmberg when he asked for his deposit back, the suit alleges.
Soon after the earthquake, “as soon as phone service was restored,” Malmberg called Shubeck and thanked him, the engineer said. Said attorney Robertson: “He literally credits that report with saving his life.”
Malmberg did not want to be interviewed for this story but, according to Robertson, he liked the neighborhood so much he ended up buying a home around the corner from 3855 Sherwood Place.
In the chaotic minutes after the 6.8-magnitude earthquake, Robertson said, Malmberg ran into the street to hear neighbors shouting, “A house has collapsed! A house has collapsed!”
“He got a pit in his stomach,” Robertson said, “because he knew which one they meant.”
Meanwhile Dave Yobs learned of the collapse while listening to his car radio in the driveway of his home in Westlake Village. Jan. 17 is his birthday, and he had just celebrated it that weekend with Marc, whose birthday was in December, and their younger sister, born Jan. 15. After a traditional birthday dinner at Lowry’s Prime Rib, the whole family had shared cake, ice cream and presents at Marc and Karen’s house.
The radio broadcast said only Sherwood Place, not the house number. But no one in the close-knit family had heard yet from Marc, so Dave Yobs called their father to tell him about the news report and said, “I’m going down there.”
As he wound his way up the hill, ordinary citizens were controlling traffic and a rescue scene that had not yet drawn trained emergency crews. Even before he reached the top, Dave Yobs could see that his brother’s house was gone.
Some neighbors tried to comfort him, offering hope and saying that Marc and Karen’s dog, Bob, had emerged alive. Others continued to plow by hand through the wreckage of the flattened house, board by board, until the couple was found dead. * RELATED STORY: B4