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Neighbors Win One, Lose One in Legal Actions Against Pacific Steel

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Wednesday December 17, 2008 - 07:14:00 PM

Neighborhood opponents of West Berkeley’s Pacific Steel Casting went one-for-two in Alameda County Superior Court legal decisions on Friday, with one judge overturning a previous Berkeley Small Claims Court ruling in favor of several PSC neighbors and, in a separate action, a second judge ruling that a class-action lawsuit against the steel foundry can go forward.  

In the appeal from the Small Claims Court decision, Super-ior Court Judge Jacqueline Tabor overruled a Novem- 

ber 2007 ruling, which had awarded $35,000 in damages to a group of West Berkeley neighbors who sued Pacific Steel Casting last year. In a terse, one paragraph judg- 

ment that did not explain the reasons for her decision, Tabor ordered plaintiff Thomas McGuire, a PSC neighbor, to pay Pacific Steel $85 in court costs.  

In the appeals procedure from a small claims decision, the Superior Court judge takes testimony and accepts evidence as fresh, disregarding anything that was earlier presented to the small claims court. 

Predictably, the antagonists in the small claims lawsuit took dramatically opposite views of the decision. 

“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 prepared statement. “We are very gratified that this judge clearly saw how unjustified these claims were. For PSC, and its 600-plus union employees, this verdict reinforces our belief that we cannot be recklessly blamed because we’re an easy target. We’ve been making steel castings in West Berkeley for a long time as the neighborhood has become increasingly residential. We’re going to continue to do everything we can to be a good neighbor while preserving good paying jobs and serving our customers with high quality castings.” 

But in a telephone interview, plaintiff Tom McGuire called the decision a “grave injustice” and a “hasty decision” by the Superior Court judge that was “a setback for the citizens of West Berkeley…Our nuisance claims were thrown out by the judge at the get-go. She didn’t give us a chance to make our claims. She let Pacific Steel railroad their way through. It was a David and Goliath case. We were being represented pro bono and they had attorneys whom they paid thousands of dollars.” 

But McGuire said that despite his opinion that the judge’s decision was unjust, he will not appeal, noting that a statement in the Oakland Tribune by PSC spokesperson Elisabeth Jewel that an appeal could only be filed on technical, procedural grounds was “probably true.”  

McGuire said, “I consider it a closed case.”  

In the class-action lawsuit filed in the name of Berkeley resident Rosie Lee Evans, Judge Bonnie Sabraw largely denied outright a motion by Pacific Steel Casting’s attorneys to have the case either thrown out entirely or possible punishments weakened, giving Berkeley attorney Tim Rumberger until mid-January to amend the original complaint. The judge’s ruling only allows the case to go forward, and is not an indication of whether the judge will ultimately rule in favor of the neighbors or Pacific Steel.  

According to Rumberger’s office in a story reported last April in the Daily Planet, the class-action lawsuit is seeking an injunction to require the foundry to “reduce its off-site toxic emissions impact to safe levels or relocate from this neighborhood,” and demands a “compensation to the thousands of neighbors affected daily by the noxious odors and toxins.”  

Pacific Steel attorneys have not yet filed a formal answer to the original complaint, seeking instead to have the case thrown out of court.