OAKLAND — After two years of losing lawsuits and being told by neighbors and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to clean up its act, Pacific Steel Casting has won a court victory that will allow the 75-year-old West Berkeley company to avoid paying as much as $30,000 to plaintiffs who sued the company in small-claims court.
Alameda County Judge Jacqueline Taber ruled that the company "did not create a nuisance for all plaintiffs who had filed small-claims lawsuits against the company," PSC spokeswoman Elisabeth Jewel said. The plaintiffs were ordered to pay the company roughly $500 in court fees, she said.
"We've always known that if you take the time to look at the facts, then it's clear that Pacific Steel cannot be held accountable for the activities of an entire industrial neighborhood located next to a congested freeway," PSC President Joe Emmerichs said in a statement.
Emmerichs said for the family-owned company and its more than 600 union employees, the verdict "reinforces our belief that we cannot be recklessly blamed because we're an easy target."
Attorney Kathleen Aberegg filed a the consolidated small-claims suit in 2006 on behalf of 19 neighbors who claimed the smell of burning plastic in the air near the factory was causing headaches, nausea and tightness in their chests.
In November 2007, a judge ruled that nine of the plaintiffs would get between $2,100 and $5,100 each for the nuisance, loss
PSC appealed and a new trial was held. Information from the small-claims court cases was not used, and both sides were represented by attorneys and allowed to present witnesses.
McGuire said he was disappointed in the ruling.
"I feel it was a great injustice,'' said McGuire, 53, who lived near the factory for seven months before moving to Kensington because of the smell. "I think it's a setback for the environmental community and the citizens of West Berkeley who have to live in the proximity of fumes."
PSC's victory comes just days after a report in USA Today, using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, listed three nearby schools as having some of the worst air in the country. Only 377 of the 127,800 schools that were studied were worse, the report said.
In an e-mail, Aberegg said efforts to pursue an appeal are in the works. Aberegg was not available for comment Monday, but Jewel said the plaintiffs cannot file an appeal. They can, however file a petition for discretionary review to settle an "important question of law or secure uniformity of the decision," she said.
"Neither exists here," Jewel said.
PSC has faced four lawsuits in the last two years.
In 2006, under a settlement with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which had sued, PSC installed a $2 million carbon absorption unit to reduce odor and emissions. PSC also settled with Communities for a Better Environment in Oakland last year, promising to reduce its hazardous air pollutants by at least two tons annually.
PSC may not have seen the last of lawsuits. In the spring, a class-action suit was filed by Berkeley attorney Timothy Rumberger. It seeks an end to the alleged toxic air emissions the plant puts out and offers the company an alternative to fixing the alleged pollution — relocation.