Two next door neighbors sat on opposite sides of the courtroom for the opening day of ., et al.
The trial had been brewing for nearly 15 years, since the time David Schuman first filed a complaint with Greenbelt Homes, Inc. (GHI), a housing cooperative of 1,600 homes. He had been unhappy about the smoke wafting into his Ridge Road unit in historic Greenbelt — from what he believed to be his next-door neighbors' cigarettes.
A number of mitigating measures followed, that included the sealing of Schuman's home, mediation by the cooperative and concessions made by his neighbors, the Popovics. Eventually Svetlana Popovic even quit smoking, after being diagnosed with a brain tumor, and her husband, Darko, stopped smoking inside their home and instead smoked outside.
Schuman said he still smelled smoke and the neighbors eventually found themselves in the Prince George's County Circuit Court, Upper Marlboro, on Wednesday, Aug. 17, with lawyers weighing in on both sides of the clash and offering opening statements.
Schuman’s case, being argued by his lawyer J.P. Szymkowicz, a board member of Smokefree DC, claims that GHI neglected to stop the “nuisance” that the Popovics’ cigarette smoke caused Schuman. Schuman is seeking $300,000 in compensatory and $300,000 in punitive damages.
The Greenbelt Homes Mutual Ownership Contract states that members should refrain from “any act or thing that shall or may be a nuisance, annoyance, inconvenience” to their neighbors.
Szymkowicz claimed the case was similar to that of Steptoe & Johnson's case against Rogue States. The D.C. case concluded in the fall of 2010, with the judge ruling against Rogue States, declaring that the smell from the grill of Rogue State's hamburger joint was a “nuisance” to the lawyers who were attempting to work at Steptoe & Johnson.
Michael Goecke, an attorney co-presenting the case for GHI on Wednesday, said they were going to show that there was no unreasonable interference with Mr. Schuman’s unit; Mr. Schuman suffered no medical injury due to his exposure to secondhand smoke; Schuman did not vacate his unit; and that he took minimal steps to mitigate his exposure to secondhand smoke.
The first day of the trial focused on Schuman's witnesses, five of whom were called to the stand.
Schuman’s attorneys attempted to show that unit renovations Schuman made in 2008 did not cause the smoke problem to flare back up again.
Frank Gervasi, the contractor who did Schuman’s 2008 renovations, said that his crew “meticulously sealed” the home.
Addressing the duration of the problem, Carolyn and Kevin Hammett, friends of Schuman, said they had both smelled smoke in Schuman’s home during visits spanning nearly 15 years.
Dorry Ipolito, the Popovics’ other next-door neighbor, highlighted the health hazards created by the secondhand smoke, claiming she suffered from similar smoke problems in her own home. In fact, she signed on to the first complaint that Schuman filed with GHI in 1997.
Ipolito, a retired prosecutor, noted that she bought fans and a HEPA filter to try to solve the problem, but that she can still smell smoke inside her home when Darko Popovic smokes outside.
Ipolito felt the smoke may be triggering her asthma attacks and complained that Popovic’s smoking outside has limited the use of her screened-in porch. She testified that there was a “lack of cooperation” from GHI.
The last witness to take the stand was David Schuman.
Schuman, who is a lawyer for NASA, testified that because of the smoke he had difficulty breathing, a rapid heart rate, watery eyes, congestion, sneezing and headaches. He said he began getting the upper respiratory problems in the late 2000s, the same time that he filed his second complaint about the secondhand smoke.
The way GHI handled his first complaint in 1997, satisfied him, Schuman testified. He had gone through a formal hearing and in the end, GHI agreed to and performed some sealing work.
But Schuman said he doesn’t think the sealing worked, although he recalled that from early 1998 and for a good ten years, the smoke was no longer a problem.
But then in 2008, the problem “came back with a vengeance," Schuman testified, saying he didn’t have knowledge of why it came back; he just knew that it came back. He filed another complaint with GHI.
Although he renovated his unit in 2008, Schuman recalled going to a doctor before the renovations started — because he couldn’t sleep, felt nauseous and got headaches.
After going through a member complaints panel, Schuman said he received a letter from Gretchen Overdurff (GHI general manager) saying there was nothing more GHI could do and that he would have to work it out with his neighbors or move.
“My neighbor wasn’t going to quit smoking,” said Schuman, “So basically they were telling me to move.”
As the first day of trial was nearing a close, Schuman testified he had put his unit up for sale for $259,000. “I have to sell my house because I’m not going to live there under these circumstances,” he said.
Stating he had drained his retirement account litigating this case, Schuman added that he had not received money from any outside organizations.
The primary counsel for GHI, Jason Fisher, objected when Schuman claimed that he had “immediate problems and very serious long-term problems.”
Fisher said there had been no testimony that Schuman’s health problems were due to secondhand smoke or that he had to sell his house.
In his testimony, Schuman claimed that GHI was making his dispute out to be more than it was. “It’s not any mission or big policy discussion,” he declared, saying that instead it was similar to a neighbor having a vicious dog or too much trash in their yard.
Patch caught up with Schuman after the case, and he elaborated on his position. “This is a very important case,” he said, explaining it would help many thousands of people in the state of Maryland and many millions throughout the country. Otherwise, he said, “I don’t think I would have continued because it’s an awful experience to go through, and I can barely afford to do it.”
Schuman said he was not in it for the money and that that ultimately he just wanted a smoke-free house.
As Darko Popovic exited the courtroom, he noted that this was the first time he had been sued and that he’s almost 65.
“But what can you do?” Popovic said.
The trial is scheduled resume at 9 a.m., Thursday, in The Prince George's County Circuit Court, Upper Marlboro.
Editor's Note: This story has been corrected. An earlier version incorrectly referred to the type unit that Schuman lives in. We regret this error.