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Developer sues Paso resident for libel

Montebello Estates man was trying to warn fellow homeowners of ungrounded light switches

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When Doug Garrett and his wife moved into their new Paso Robles home, they had no idea that an ungrounded light switch would eventually lead to a $1 million libel suit against them.

The couple moved into their Montebello Estates home in November, and within the first week Garret said he noticed something troubling. While hanging ceiling fans, he found that none of the light switches in the house were grounded.

Garrett said he called Paso Robles building inspector Irv Terra to inquire about code regulations, and Terra confirmed Garret's thinking; according to national code, all light switches must be grounded.

Many homeowners might be unfamiliar with the importance of grounding light switches, but Garrett knew from personal experience. Aside from his father's background as an electrical engineer, Garrett said in the early '90s when he was living in San Luis Obispo an ungrounded light switch began to smoke after water from a leaky roof eventually made its way into the switch. Garrett said had he not been home to put out the fire, the damage could have been a lot worse.

After talking to the Paso Robles city building inspector, Garret called Fallingstar Homes, the development company that built Montebello Estates. After alerting them to the situation, Garrett said Fallingstar was quick to send over two electricians who promptly grounded every switch in the house. But Garrett said he was still concerned about the other homeowners in the new development, so in February he printed out memos warning his neighbors about the ungrounded switches and attached them to 80 other Montebello Estates homes.

"¡Danger!" the flyer reads, "a life-threatening electrical condition found in 1630 Christina Court may exist in your Montebello Estates home. Your Family may be at serious risk. Don't delay. For More Information call [Garrett's phone number]. Warning Do Not believe false or misleading information from Falling Star Homes personnel."


'Everyone that I talk to thanked me for letting them know about the situation.'

Doug Garrett, homeowner who is being sued by developer


And even though he told Fallingstar of his intention to warn other neighbors, said Garrett, his memo was enough to warrant a $1 million libel lawsuit. According to law.com, libel is essentially the written form of defamation of character.

After Garrett warned his neighbors, Frank Arciero of Fallingstar Homes sent out his own memo to Montebello homeowners. The memo informed homeowners that the switches are not life threatening, and that the plans for the Montebello homes were approved in '96 and the homes were built in '99 after a new National Electric Code requirement, which mandated light-switch grounding, went into place. Arciero proceeded to offer free light switch grounding, and states in the memo, "Your switches are completely safe, particularly if you do not replace the faceplates with metal ones."

"Everyone that I talk to thanked me for letting them know about the situation," said Garrett. "I mean, they really don't have a case. I don't think we're going to have a problem winning it. They've tried to settle it."

Even though Garrett is confident about winning, he says the trouble of being sued has been really irritating. Still, he says if had to do it over again he would proceed the same way.

"I felt that people should know," said Garrett. "It's aggravating us that he can do this."

Garrett said he thinks the lawsuit is frivolous. And even though he says he was called a "wacko" by Fallingstar Homes, he doesn't really care.

"The electrical code speaks for itself. The city inspector speaks for himself. I have the facts on my side, so they can say what they want."

Calls to Arciero's lawyer were not returned as of press time. ³

 

Staff Writer John Peabody can be reached at jpeabody@newtimesslo.com.

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