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Trial Testimony: Sterling's Weho Property Had Faulty Fire Alarms

Warning horns were in need of repair when fire damaged apartment building in 2009, property supervisor says.

The woman who oversees the extensive real estate holdings of Clippers owner Donald Sterling told a jury Monday she did not know until months after flames damaged a West Hollywood property that the fire detection system was not fully operational.

Actress Robyn Cohen sued the 79-year-old billionaire in Los Angeles Superior Court for her property loss and emotional distress she says she suffered as a result of the September 2009 blaze in Sterling's 54-unit building at 888 West Knoll Drive.

She lived in the building for a decade, saying she stayed so long in part because it was under the city's rent-control ordinance.

The trial for Cohen's lawsuit is in its second week. She alleges Sterling failed to keep the building in a habitable condition and that the alarm system was not operating properly at the time of the fire, which was caused by an electrical problem in a heater fan in another unit.

Philomena Wong told jurors the structure is one of 130 buildings she oversees on behalf of Sterling's company, Beverly Hills Properties. 

Wong said she was unaware until February 2010 that 52 of 54 fire warning horns in the units connected to the main alarm were not working the day of the fire.

Cohen said her apartment was among those that had a defective horn.

Wong said she received the information about the malfunctioning horns in a report. She claimed it was normal for her to be told about the data in the report long after the incident because there were no county Fire Department violations involved.

Information on violations would have been brought to her immediate attention, she said.

Cohen's lawsuit alleges that the dozen smoke detectors in the building were not working, but Wong said she does not remember reading that information in the report.

"I'm not sure they were part of the defects," she said.

Asked by Cohen's attorney Brian Henri whether on-site building manager Lauricia Bustamante told her that some of the residents complained they never heard a fire alarm the day of the blaze, Wong replied, "I did not recall we had that conversation."

Cohen is perhaps best known for being frequently topless in Wes Anderson's comedy-drama The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which starred Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Anjelica Huston.

Kim Webster, a former cast member on The West Wing, also lived in the building. She and several other tenants also sued Sterling in Los Angeles Superior Court in January 2010 but settled with him before trial.

Sterling bought the building in 2000 but delegated its operations to his company's staff and the building's resident managers, according to his attorney Guy Gruppie.

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