Ruling expands judges' authority to force lead inspections of houses

November 09, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

A state appellate court has ruled that trial judges can order landlords to open their doors for lead paint testing even if they are not named in a lawsuit.

The Court of Special Appeals decision means landlords can no longer avoid liability by selling properties where children have been poisoned by lead, said attorney Saul E. Kerpelman, who brought the appeal.

Along with the level of lead in a child's blood, results of lead testing in a child's house can be key evidence in a lead-poisoning lawsuit. Some judges have refused to hear cases that do not include inspection evidence, said Kerpelman, whose law firm handles the majority of such cases in Baltimore.

But if a landlord sells the property before or during a lead lawsuit - as often happens, Kerpelman said - the new owner is under no obligation to permit an inspection.

"We've lost probably more than a dozen cases because we couldn't get non-party properties inspected," Kerpelman said.

The appellate decision Wednesday stemmed from a 1999 case, in which Eve Jones, the grandmother of a lead-poisoned child, Carl Stokes, sued John M. Sarkin, the owner of 835 N. Washington St.

When Kerpelman, Jones' lawyer, asked that the vacant house be inspected for lead, the new property owner, 835 N. Washington Street LLC, refused.

David L. Jacobson, the lawyer for the new landlord, said his clients, who bought the property at auction two years before Jones sued, had "absolutely no connection with the prior owner."

Kerpelman filed a motion to "perpetuate evidence," but the trial judge ruled that the court had no authority to force a nonlitigant to comply with a testing request.

The higher court disagreed, ruling that judges can order compliance from landlords if the test results are vital to a lawsuit.

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