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Lawyer files $5-million claim, saying L.A. City Hall rat problem caused her illness

Lawyer files $5-million claim, saying L.A. City Hall rat problem caused her illness
Deputy City Atty. Elizabeth Greenwood has filed a $5-million claim against the city, saying she contracted typhus while working in her office at City Hall East. She says the flea-borne illness spread as a result of trash and homeless encampments outside her office. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

A Los Angeles city attorney who says a City Hall rat infestation caused her to contract flea-borne typhus has filed a $5-million legal claim, saying Mayor Eric Garcetti and other elected officials allowed trash outside her office to become a threat to public health.

Deputy City Atty. Elizabeth Greenwood said in her claim that Garcetti, City Atty. Mike Feuer and the City Council allowed garbage and human feces to accumulate on the streets outside City Hall East, “recklessly endangering the public” by allowing rats and fleas to thrive.

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Greenwood worked at City Hall East until October, when she went out on sick leave. She was diagnosed in November with typhus, a flea-borne illness that can spread when fleas bite rats and later pass the bacteria on to humans. Its symptoms include a rash, fever and fatigue.

The San Pedro resident said she has faced retaliation from her bosses for contacting the news media and Cal/OSHA, a state agency that monitors workplace safety, about the dangers posted by rats, fleas and typhus. She also contends that L.A. officials failed in their obligation to ensure that sidewalks in the Civic Center, many of them occupied by homeless residents, are safe and sanitary.

“The rotting trash and the raw sewage is the soup that grows typhus,” she said.

A Garcetti spokesman had no comment. Asked about the claim, an aide to Feuer said Friday that employee health is an issue “of paramount concern.”

“The facts are that there was vigorous testing in City Hall and surrounding buildings and not one flea was found,” Feuer spokesman Rob Wilcox said in an email. “And there have been no other claims of typhus alleged by city employees. City leaders remain committed to our employees' health and safety.”

Greenwood filed her claim last month. Claims are typically submitted at City Hall before the filing of a lawsuit.

Workers at City Hall have complained for nearly a year about rodents, setting traps, finding droppings and paw prints, and capturing the scurrying creatures on video.

In response to Greenwood’s complaints, council members ordered a handful of agencies to assess the presence of fleas and rats at City Hall, City Hall East and other nearby buildings.

In February, a pest control firm told the council that it had found no evidence of the disease-carrying insects inside City Hall or other municipal facilities.

County health officials declared a typhus outbreak last year in downtown L.A., saying people should avoid stray or wild animals, including rats.

City officials contend that the rodent problem was triggered by the ongoing demolition of Parker Center, the former headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department, which sits across the street from City Hall East.

Since Greenwood went public with her claims, city crews have engaged in a major cleanup of the Civic Center, setting traps and clearing vegetation.

Greenwood said she attempted to return to her job on Friday, bringing a cameraman from NBC Channel 4 to City Hall East. She said she did so to document her bosses’ ongoing refusal to allow her to go back to work.

“I brought NBC with me because I don’t feel comfortable talking with these folks without a witness,” she said.

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Greenwood said that a few hours later, she was placed on paid administrative leave and sent home.

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