Jury awards $1.5 million to lead-poisoned 3-year-old

March 18, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

A Baltimore Circuit Court jury has awarded $1.5 million to a 3-year-old boy poisoned by flaking lead paint in an East Baltimore home that his family rented.

The 12-member jury made the award Wednesday against Albert and Norman Baumgart, owners of the home in the 2800 block of Harford Road. Neither the men, nor their attorneys could be reached for comment yesterday.

The award, one of the largest ever in a lead poisoning case in Baltimore, is part of a nationwide trend toward large verdicts in such lawsuits. Though some landlords successfully fend off lawsuits, lead-poisoned children in Washington, Massachusetts and New York recently have won awards of $1 million or more, said John T. Hayes, an editor for Mealey Publications, which publishes a legal newsletter on lead litigation.

During a three-day trial, lawyers for the boy, Thomas Smith, claimed he suffered learning disabilities, loss of IQ and speech impairments as a result of ingesting flaking lead paint while living in the house from December 1990 through May 1992.

Thomas's mother and grandmother complained repeatedly to the landlords about flaking paint, before and after the boy's lead poisoning was detected in February 1991, said Evan K. Thalenberg, one of the family's lawyers.

The landlords denied being informed about peeling paint or about the boy's poisoning, according to Kenneth Strong, the family's other lawyer.

The house was never inspected by the city health department, apparently because the family moved out before an inspector could arrange to check for lead paint, said Michael Wojtowycz, who is in charge of the city's lead paint enforcement program.

But a health outreach worker who visited the family in November 1991 noted flaking paint, Mr. Wojtowycz said. And the child's lawyers arranged for a private inspection that confirmed the presence of lead paint in the house, Mr. Thalenberg said.

A psychiatrist, pediatric neurologist and pediatric psychologist called by the child's lawyers all testified that his injuries are permanent and will require intensive therapy. The expert witnesses estimated that Thomas would earn almost $500,000 less during his lifetime than he would have had he not been poisoned.

The family offered to settle the case for $500,000, Mr. Strong said, which was the maximum amount that the landlords' property insurance would pay. But the settlement offer was rejected, he said.

The jury awarded Thomas $300,000 for his loss of future earnings, $150,000 to pay for future medical expenses and $1 million in noneconomic damages, according to Mr. Thalenberg. The boy's mother, Anissa, received $78,000.

The boy and his mother live in Ohio, according to Mr. Strong.

The verdict renewed calls for state legislation to reduce childhood lead poisoning while preserving low-income housing. Landlords, claiming that they are being driven out of business by mounting lead litigation, have called on the legislature to shield them from costly lawsuits.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer recently introduced legislation that offers to limit landlords' liability to $16,500 per poisoned child if they reduce lead-poisoning hazards. But the measure has drawn fire from trial lawyers, who say it deprives poisoned children of their rights to be compensated for their injuries.

"The way to deal with it is not just to limit landlords' liability, but to develop a system that tries to end most lead poisoning cases in the first place," said Donald G. Gifford, dean of the University of Maryland law school.

Mr. Gifford, chairman of the governor's Lead Paint Poisoning Commission, opposes the administration's legislative compromise with a group of Baltimore landlords.

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