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Suit Over Asbestos Claim Is Settled

Times Staff Writer

A Seal Beach Leisure World resident who sued the retirement community after losing virtually all her belongings because of a false asbestos alarm has won nearly $30,000 in a court settlement.

“I’m glad it is over with,” Erika Furlong-Swenson, 65, said Friday, a day after the settlement was reached in Orange County Superior Court. “It’s been a long 2 1/2 years.”

In January 2003, Furlong-Swenson’s apartment and a neighbor’s sustained smoke damage from a fire in an adjacent unit. Leisure World officials told her and the neighbor, Hildegard Zeller, who was 85 at the time, that the fire had caused their units to be contaminated with asbestos.

That turned out to be false, but cleanup crews already had thrown away most of the two widows’ belongings. Leisure World also billed the women for cleanup costs: $4,995 for Furlong-Swenson and $2,475 for Zeller.

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Outraged residents protested and shined a spotlight once again on the retirement community, which has made headlines in recent years over dog-walking bans and accusations of censorship in the community’s newspaper.

Furlong-Swenson sued in 2004. Zeller, who did not pursue her case in court, could not be reached for comment.

Under the terms of Thursday’s settlement, Leisure World will pay Furlong-Swenson $5,000 and remove a lien for $4,995 that was placed on her apartment for the cleanup bill, said her attorney, David Wayne Williams. Alliance Environmental Group Inc., the cleanup company, is to pay Furlong-Swenson $19,000.

Neither the Golden Rain Foundation -- the community’s elected governing body -- nor Alliance admitted wrongdoing.

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Furlong-Swenson said she felt a measure of vindication.

“This won’t replace the things I’ve lost,” including family photos, a cuckoo clock and Bavarian costumes, she said. “But it was the principle. Hopefully, they’ve learned their lesson.”

Tom Barratt, Golden Rain’s president, declined to comment.


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