A Los Angeles County area couple recently sued Mulberry Mobile-home Park after their neighbors allegedly burned down their trailer.
Anthony and Marcela Follett claimed that the Mulberry trailer park was liable for their damages because the act of arson was foreseeable based on a pattern of ongoing criminal activity.
According to court documents, the couple first moved into the mobile home park in 1994. The Folletts lived in peace until November 2008, when a rainstorm knocked a tree from their yard onto a motorcycle belonging to his neighbor, Sue Chotikasupasanee. Although the tree belonged to the mobile home park, the neighbor threatened to sue the Folletts.
A short time thereafter a series of vandalism incident occurred around the Folletts’ trailer, including unwrapped condoms being left on their property, their garden hose being cut with the water turned on, and their car being keyed.
The Folletts complained about the incidents to the mobile park property manager and the police. They were advised to install motion-activated lights, which they did.
Friday Night Mischief
The couple regularly attended meetings on Friday nights, which was apparently well-known to the vandals because some of the incidents would occur when they were gone.
One Friday Anthony Follett left for the meeting and Marcela decided to stay home. According to court documents, Marcela noticed that the security lights turned on about two minutes after Anthony left and saw Sue Chotikasupasanee attempting to enter her back shed. Marcela opened her door and asked Sue what she was doing, prompting Sue to flee.
Sue allegedly told the Mulberry property manager that she was by the back shed because she was trying to return mail that was accidentally delivered to her home. The property manager told her that this story seemed implausible because there was an unlocked mailbox at the front of the Follett’s property. The property manager then warned Sue to respect her neighbors’ property and reminded Sue of the community rules.
This incident prompted the Folletts to install security cameras, which put an end to the Friday night incidents.
In May of 2009, the Folletts discovered that about 90 feet of their lawn was dying around a gap in the fence with the Chotikasupasanees’ yard. They believed that the Chotikasupasanees sprayed a toxic substance from their yard and they found some of it coating their children’s swing set near that area. The property manager told the couple that there was nothing she could do, but advised them to build a higher fence, which they did.
Things escalated in August of 2009 when Anthony Follett saw Sue Chotikasupasanee throw cat feces on the street in front of the Folletts’ home. He asked her not throw feces in front of his home, as his children played there, and then swept up the feces.
The situation got ugly when Sue’s husband, Chirawat Chotikasupasanee became involved. According to court documents, Chirawat broke the broom that Anthony used to clean up the cat feces and then began swinging his fists at Anthony. Chirawat called police officers after Anthony started defending himself. Deputies took Anthony to a substation where they apologized and released him.
According to court documents, the Mulberry property manager agreed with the Folletts that the behavior of the Chotikasupasanees was disgusting, but refused to take any action.
Anthony was served with a temporary restraining order a few days later. The day the restraining order was served, a bush in their yard showed the same discoloration that their lawn had shown previously.
A short time later, a new neighbor told the Folletts that he heard a tearing noise from a RV storage space behind their home. The neighbor saw a woman by the boat who fled when he confronted her. The neighbor’s description of the woman matched Sue Chotikasupasanee, and further investigation revealed that their boat cover had been cut.
On November 26, 2010, several cars on the Follett’s street had their tires slashed. This occurred when the Folletts were out of town visiting family in Nevada. The next night their mobile home was burned down.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Sergeant Wendy Zolkowski, an arson expert, determined that the fire started at 2 a.m. and was intentionally set. Court documents indicate that charcoal lighter fluid was spread around the outside of the Folletts’ home.
The arsonist was never identified.
The Lawsuit & Appeal
The Folletts sued the trailer park and the management company on June 28, 2011, alleging that the companies failed to keep the mobile home park safe despite their numerous complaints safety complaints.
The Folletts allege that Mulberry Mobilehome Park Associates and the MZL property management company were negligent and breached the lease agreement. The Folletts also sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of the implied warranty of habitability, and nuisance.
During trial, a central issue was whether the arson was “reasonably foreseeable” given the other criminal acts in the trailer park. Mulberry maintained that the minor acts of vandalism and property thefts were not sufficiently similar enough to arson to make arson foreseeable and impose a duty on the park management to act.
The trial court and appeals court agreed with Mulberry.
“In the instant case, none of the incidents prior to November 27, 2010, involved arson,” an appeals court judge wrote. “The Folletts complained of isolated incidents of petty theft, vandalism, harassment, and annoyances.”
“None of the activities the Folletts complained of to defendants were inherently dangerous felonies like arson and there were no prior incidents of arson,” the judge continued. “As a matter of law, it was not foreseeable from the minor grievances and confrontations that an intruder would break into the Folletts’ mobile home and commit arson.”