Judge Colleen Sterne rejected landlord Dario Pini’s arguments that he couldn’t get a fair trial in Santa Barbara because of incendiary and sensational media descriptions and likewise rejected his request for a change of venue for a civil complaint filed by a woman who was sexually attacked in Pini’s Ala Mar Motel located off Cabrillo Boulevard overlooking the ocean. Pini is being sued by Susanne Etzel, a German tourist who claims that her assault in January 2015 stemmed from poor precautions Pini took to maintain security at the hotel. Pini, she claimed, failed to replace the locks of her room even though prior tenants had lost the keys. Likewise, she’s alleged there was no dead bolt for the door.
Beyond such negligence claims, Etzel is waging a broader, more ambitious legal attack, alleging Pini’s conduct meets the legal definition of public nuisance. Such claims are much harder to win. Pini’s attorney, Kathleen Carter, argued Etzel lacks legal standing to make such arguments because she’s a German citizen and that the defects alleged are not sufficiently common or widespread to constitute a public nuisance. Should the matter eventually get to trial, she argued, it needs to be someplace outside Santa Barbara, where Pini’s chronic zoning battles with City Hall have not made him the focus of sustained media attention. Pini, she argued, has been depicted in media accounts as “an unethical, law-breaking slumlord who is beyond redemption and needs to be severely punished for decades of transgressions.”
Pini is currently the subject of an $8.1 million claim by City Hall for multiple allegations of building-code violations that render his property unsafe for human habitation. Likewise, City Attorney Ariel Calonne is pursuing a legal campaign to have 11 of Pini’s rental properties removed from his control and placed in the hands of a court-appointed receiver. According to Etzel’s complaint, she was violently assaulted on January 2, 2015, by a man — subsequently arrested, convicted and sentenced to seven years for attempted rape — who had come into possession of a key to her hotel room. Etzel claims Pini should have changed the lock for her door. Etzel’s case remains much in its infancy, and it remains unclear it will ever get to trial. If it does — based on Sterne’s ruling — that trial will take place in Santa Barbara.