Landlords can be liable, appellate court rules

Ignorance of hazards no excuse, judges say

April 21, 2000|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

In a ruling that could shift the odds in favor of tenants in some lead-poisoning lawsuits, the Maryland Court of Appeals has ruled that landlords who rent out substandard houses can be held liable for damages whether or not they knew the properties were in hazardous condition.

"The landlord need not inspect the premises before leasing," the majority of the court held, "but he or she fails to do so at his or her peril."

In a 4-to-3 ruling, the majority overruled a Baltimore Circuit Court jury and swept away any requirement that a new tenant notify the landlord of a problem before the owner can be held liable, a legal hurdle that had stymied many lead-paint poisoning cases in the past.

"The problem with the old standard is that a lot of tenants are intimidated by their landlords," said Saul Kerpelman, a Baltimore attorney who handles lead-poisoning matters and who argued the case for the plaintiffs. "They're afraid that if they report a problem, they'll be evicted.

"The other problem is that the city housing code requires all rental properties to be in full compliance with the law at the time they are rented," he said.

The opinion Wednesday came in the case of Brandon Hatcher, in whom serious lead poisoning was diagnosed after he ate lead paint and toxic dust in an apartment in the 1400 block of Division St. in 1990, when he was 2, according to the suit.

Baltimore Health Department inspectors documented 16 violations in the unit, including peeling lead paint on door frames, baseboards and windows.

In the lawsuit filed on Brandon's behalf in 1993 in Baltimore Circuit Court, doctors testified that the child suffered from attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders as a result of his lead exposure.

Defendant Joseph Benik, whom Health Department records show has been cited by the city for lead violations at least four times since 1974, did not respond to phone calls yesterday. His attorney, Washington-based Kevin Murphy, also was not available.

During the trial, a city housing inspector testified on Benik's behalf, saying he had surveyed the apartment before the Hatcher family moved in and certified it safe to occupy.

Family members testified that there were numerous patches of peeling and flaking paint when they moved in.

Kerpelman argued that the state Consumer Protection Act bars landlords from making false claims about the safety of their properties and that the city housing code requires all dwellings to be made safe before they're rented.

The trial judge instructed the jury that Benik could not be held responsible for Brandon's poisoning unless it was proven that he knew about the peeling paint.

Using that standard, the jury ruled against the family, triggering the appeal that led to Wednesday's ruling and could open the way for the Hatchers to seek a new trial.

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