Landlord is blamed in lead case Owners must warn tenants, court says BALTIMORE CITY

September 10, 1993|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

Landlords in Baltimore are obligated to ensure that lead-based paint is not peeling from their buildings, where it can pose health hazards, the state's second highest court has ruled.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld a jury verdict awarding nearly $500,000 to two children who lived in a West Baltimore rowhouse and $18,944 to the estate of their mother, who died of unrelated causes after suing her landlord.

"The decision squarely puts on the landlords' shoulders the responsibility to safeguard children from exposure to poisoning through lead-based paint," said C. Christopher Brown, an attorney for the children.

Although the court's decision centered on a Baltimore city code regulating lead-based paint, the broad statement by the three-judge panel said landlords violate the Maryland Consumer Protection Act when they fail to alert tenants to the dangers of peeling lead paint, which can cause brain damage in children.

"Consumers, if armed with that knowledge, can make an informed decision whether to rent the unit, or, as in this case, continue to rent the unit," said the decision, written by Judge John J. Bishop Jr., and released on Tuesday.

The decision addressed lead-based paint that is chipping, flaking or peeling on the interior or exterior of rental property.

Stewart J. Levitas, of the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore, said that the cost of removing lead paint often more than a property is worth.

"If renting houses that have lead is a violation of the Consumer Protection Act, there just won't be any affordable rental housing in Baltimore City," Mr. Levitas said.

But University of Maryland Law Dean Donald G. Gifford, chairman of a task force appointed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer to address the lead-paint problem, said the decision's impact will be limited because landlords already faced "enormous liability" under existing law.

The court's ruling came in a case involving Jamika Richardson, now 9, and Jamall Richardson, 8, who lived with their mother, Barbara Richardson, in the 2100 block of W. Baltimore St. from the time of their births until January 1987. Both children have suffered brain damage, according to expert testimony in the civil trial against their landlords.

Ms. Richardson moved into the home in 1983 when it was owned by Harry Baitch.

In December 1985, the building was bought by Richwind Joint Venture 4, which appointed Mark Chodak of the Scoken Management Corp. to manage it. In January 1986, Ms. Richardson complained to Mr. Chodak that paint was peeling from the building's walls.

Mr. Chodak, a former housing inspector and property manager for Baltimore, knew the walls were covered with lead-based paint but failed to inspect them or warn the tenant about the potential health hazard, the court's opinion said.

Lead poisoning was found in Jamika and Jamall in tests conducted in August 1986.

Ms. Richardson filed suits against Mr. Baitch, Richwind and Scoken. Mr. Baitch agreed to settle for $35,000, but the other parties went to trial.

Donald C. Allen, an attorney for Richwind and Scoken, said his clients refused to settle because they did not believe the Richardson children had suffered any brain damage. He said his contention is supported by tests showing that Jamika's IQ increased from 87 in 1990 to 113 in 1991, and that Jamall's IQ rose from 94 to 107 over the same period.

"The decision sort of flies in the face of the evidence," said Mr. Allen, adding that he may seek another appeal.

But a pediatrician testifying at trial said that if the children had not been exposed to lead, "they would have been a little smarter."

The pediatrician, Dr. Julian Chisolm, of the Kennedy-Krieger Institute, said the high concentration of lead in Jamall's blood caused him to lose six to eight IQ points. Jamika lost four to six IQ points because of her exposure to lead, according to a portion of Dr. Chisolm's testimony included in the opinion.

The court said Mr. Chodak knew of the dangers of lead poisoning because he had been a housing inspector and had received notices of lead nuisance violations at other rental properties he operated. It said a high degree of care is required when children live in those homes.

"Tragically, the age a child tends to ingest lead, usually 1 to 3 years, is the period of the brain's most rapid development," Judge Bishop said.

The court also dismissed the assertion made by Richwind and Scoken that they were not responsible for paint flaking from the walls because Ms. Richardson's lease required her to do all the inside painting.

"They very clearly say that landlords can't escape their responsibility just by asking their tenants or demanding that their tenants do painting or other repairs," said Joseph B. Espo, another attorney representing the children.

Mr. Espo said the children now live in South Carolina with their grandmother, Ernestine Brunson.

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