John Birke has made it his life mission to expose secondhand smoke as a health threat and a public nuisance.
Now Birke is the one being called a nuisance.
Birke said Monday he and his family could possibly be evicted from the Oakwood Apartments in Woodland Hills where they have lived for more than 10 years, after the landlords of the large temporary housing company filed an unlawful detainer lawsuit against him, which is an eviction process.
The suit stems from alleged confrontations Birke made beginning two years ago toward smokers in the pool area of the complex, including splashing smokers with water and taking their photographs.
The trial against Birke starts on Wednesday.
"John didn't do anything wrong," said attorney Michael Sohigian, who is representing Birke.
"I think the jury will see that John didn't attack anybody, hurt anybody, or threaten anybody."
Oakwood representatives did not return calls or e-mails seeking a comment. But during a pre-trial hearing on Monday, attorney David Williamson, who represents Oakwood, said the present case against Birke had nothing to do with past or pending litigation.
"The defendant is trying to turn this into an anti-smoking case," Williamson told Judge. "This is about Mr. Birke harassing people at the pool."
Birke, an attorney, is no stranger to anti-smoking causes. In 1993, he represented the Southern California group Smokefree Air For Everyone, one of the groups that convinced the Los Angeles City Council to vote to ban smoking inside restaurants.
In 2000, he filed small-claims lawsuits against bar owners in Woodland Hills for not enforcing the no smoking law enacted Jan. 1, 1998.
Then in 2006, he filed a lawsuit against Oakwood Apartments, where his daughter, Melinda, has lived with both of her parents since she was born.
The complaint sought unspecified general and special damages and alleged a public nuisance existed at the apartment complex because management allowed smoking by tenants and visitors in outdoor common areas.
Birke said he wanted to hold the owners of the Woodland Hills apartment complex liable for secondhand smoke.
That was struck down, but in 2009, a state appellate court panel reinstated the lawsuit. Sohigian called the ruling by the 2nd District Court of Appeal "the first court in the country to find that an apartment tenant could sue a landlord for failing to restrict smoking in outdoor common areas."
Earlier this year, Birke's wife, Caryl Birke, who suffers from asthma, also filed a lawsuit against Oakwood Worldwide, alleging that secondhand smoke has further harmed her health.
Birke said Monday he is not against smokers, but would like them to have a designated area, where secondhand smoke cannot affect nonsmokers.
"I don't consider myself an anti-smoking activist," he said. "I don't care if people smoke. I just want to make sure those who don't want to be exposed are not exposed against their will."
A study released last year and conducted by researchers from Stanford University found that 1 out of 4 residents across Los Angeles favor smoking bans in apartment dwellings. An estimated 336,000 children are at risk of secondhand smoke exposure in Los Angeles County, where 41 percent of housing units are multi-unit structures, health officials have said.
A statewide law authored by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Van Nuys, that took effect this year, says a property owner has the right to call his or her building a nonsmoking one. The law is expected to expand the availability of smoke-free housing in California by allowing landlords to prohibit smoking in rental units.
Calabasas already has such laws. In 2006, the city was the first to ban lighting up in all public places, apartment common areas, restaurants and bars. City officials also ruled two years ago that 80 percent of all apartments must be permanently designated nonsmoking units this year.
Other cities such as Burbank and Pasadena have followed in an effort to prevent unwanted secondhand smoke across the city, including parks, parking lots, enclosed public areas and common areas in apartment buildings.
Birke said he has been asked several times why he hasn't moved out of the Oakwood Apartments, into a home of his own.
To that, he has a simple answer:
"If I move, who will take this on?"
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