Neighbor sues over 12 inches
April 20, 2009
By Matt Schrader
Two next-door neighbors who said they’re tired of dealing with each other have taken to the Santa Monica Courthouse over who owns a one-foot strip of land between their two properties.
In the fourth day of what attorneys expect to be a lengthy trial between one of the world’s leading ophthalmologists — or eye disease experts — Dr. Dwight Smith and local business owner Rouhollah Esmailzadeh, prosecutors questioned a forensic mechanical engineering expert about the location of sewage pipes for Smith’s home.
Smith’s lawyers argued that city inspectors had repeatedly marked the property line incorrectly when he had bought the property, well before Smith built a private sewage tank system — which runs one foot onto Esmailzadeh’s land — to service his four-story 13-bathroom mansion.
Smith’s lawyer, Scott Tepper, said the numerous city permitting errors should qualify as a grant of easement — legally equivalent to Esmailzadeh giving that land to Smith.
Defense attorney Timothy Day said just because Smith believed it was his land doesn’t make it his land legally.
“It’s a classic case of clean hands,” Day said, suggesting Esmailzadeh’s peaceful response to Smith’s claims.
Day also said the homeowner allowed Smith to use the land until the sewage tank piping ruptured.
Tepper said Smith had initially blamed Esmailzadeh for intentionally breaking part of the sewage tank system.
The court questioned Edward Saltzberg — a forensic expert with more than 50 years of experience who Smith paid to examine the piping and who owns Edward Saltzberg & Associates, a leading forensic mechanical engineering firm.
“There were roots in the pipeline,” Saltzberg said. “[That’s what] backed up the sewage.”
One student studying the case in depth said the financial capabilities of Smith, the former editor of a large medical journal, and Esmailzadeh, the owner of many local properties, including the lighting company EEMA Industries in Los Angeles, said the case could stretch months or even years.
“This is a case, really, of two neighbors who just can’t work things out,” said Mat Groseclose, a student of the Pepperdine Law School who has worked on the case during his internship with defense attorney Jillisa O’Brien.
Saltzberg testified that he was being paid $345 an hour by Smith for his appearance in court, however Judge Norman Tarle threw out sewage system arguments, saying the ruptured pipeline had little to do with the easement claims.
The easement case is not the first residence-based lawsuit Esmailzadeh has been involved with in the past half-decade.
Last December, Esmailzadeh lost a class-action lawsuit to the tenants of his apartment complex when he sold the property to a religious group that wanted to evict all tenants and demolish the complex.
Tepper asked to continue cross-examination of Saltzberg and other experts on Monday so he could pick up his daughter from school.
“One of two things could realistically happen,” said Groseclose. “The judge could throw out the case on the basis that it’s — in essence — too inane, or he could [award] the land to [Smith].”
Tuesday is expected to be the final day of trial. A jury is currently scheduled to weigh the case on May 29.