The widow of a tenant at Summerset Village Apartments in central Fresno alleges her husband’s death was caused by pneumonia he caught during the month the family and hundreds of other tenants spent without heat this winter. She is suing the out-of-town landlord for wrongful death.
Tong Cha, 75, alleges her husband, Her Xa Lor, 78, became ill after the Nov. 12 shutoff of natural gas at the 220-unit complex. Lor died Jan. 2 at Saint Agnes Medical Center of respiratory failure caused by pneumonia, according to his death certificate.
“My husband was not sick before that period,” Cha told The Bee.
Lor, like most of the Summerset tenants, came to Fresno as a Hmong refugee. Cha said her husband was a farmer, and the family fled Laos after the end of the Vietnam War. They spent years in a refugee camp in Thailand before coming to Fresno.
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The family has lived at Summerset for about 10 years.
Pahoua C. Lor, the Fresno lawyer representing tenants of Summerset Village Apartments, said Cha’s wrongful-death claim will be filed Wednesday as an amended complaint to a lawsuit filed Jan. 14. About 150 current and former tenants were included in the original complaint. Lor said the amended complaint will include about 15 additional tenants.
The plaintiffs are suing Chris Henry, the Santa Barbara landlord, for millions of dollars in damages for the month they were without gas and heat and for years of alleged negligence. They blame Henry for the natural gas shutoff. Henry has owned Summerset for about 15 years. The incident eventually led to a declaration of a local state of emergency while crews worked for about a month to restore services to the residents.
Henry, reached by telephone Tuesday, would not comment on the lawsuit and referred questions to his lawyer, Kere Tickner of Orange County. Messages left at Tickner’s office were not returned.
In November, Henry placed much of the blame for the Summerset Village crisis on Gerry Vang, the apartment manager who Henry said failed to notify him of the problems. Henry told The Bee that he walked the complex every month to check for problems and never found any.
Vang remains at the complex but works directly under Brad Hardie, president of Regency Property Management. The company was hired in December to manage the property and help with renovations. “My office works hand-in-hand with Gerry now to ensure the complex stays at its best,” Hardie said Tuesday.
The complex is undergoing extensive renovations. Upgrades are 90 percent completed, Hardie said. Besides new gas lines, units have new wall heaters, the outside of buildings has new stucco, doors have new paint, and some units have new floors, cabinets, stoves and toilets, among other upgrades, he said.
In January, the city said Henry owes the city of Fresno $290,000 for 1,450 code violations stemming from inspections in November. That money was due on Jan. 6.
City spokesman Mark Standriff said Wednesday that Henry “has not paid the fines issued at Summerset Village, and there are no plans to waive those fines at this time.”
The original tenant complaint said Henry collected about $100,000 per month in rent from the complex. Residents said he used the money to invest in property elsewhere. Henry owns trendy restaurants in Santa Barbara and Sausalito and also owns an oil company in Kern County.
The plaintiffs’ lawsuit asks for $2,000 per tenant per day spent living without heat – a sum that would total more than $9 million if fully awarded. The tenants also are seeking partial reimbursement for rent paid during years of living in substandard conditions, which they say included insect and rodent infestation, broken smoke alarms, damaged windows and faulty electrical systems.
Cha, who has been moved into another Summerset unit, is asking for damages of an unspecified amount that stem from her husband’s death, including the loss of companionship.
Attorney Lor, no relation to Her Xa Lor, said the couple had taken in grandchildren to raise. She said before Lor’s death, Cha “had the support before to help her with her grandchildren and to help her in the home and the loss of that is tremendous. She’s now having to raise children, her grandchildren, on her own.”
Since her husband’s death, Cha told The Bee: “I don’t know what to do every day.”