A Baltimore Circuit Court jury awarded $630,000 yesterday to a 9-year-old boy who suffered lead poisoning while he lived in a East Baltimore rowhouse owned by the city housing authority.
But getting the full payment may be difficult for the boy's family because the award exceeds the authority's $500,000 insurance limit. J. Marks Moore III, who represents the Housing Authority of Baltimore City in lead paint cases, said he did not know how complex legal issues involving the city's insurance coverage would be resolved.
The family of Lamar Lynch filed the civil suit nearly two years ago, alleging negligence on the part of the housing authority and violations of the state's consumer protection law during the years they lived at 317 E. Lafayette Ave. The authority moved the family out of the now-vacant rowhouse five years ago because of a leaking roof.
Michael A. Pulver, who represented the family, said the jury was concerned "that the housing authority knew that there was lead paint on the exterior and it didn't do anything to keep the property in good condition, and it did not say anything to the parents. ... It also upset them that the property to this day is still in the same condition."
According to trial testimony, the child had recorded high blood levels of lead for almost his entire life. At 18 months, he registered a lead level of 20, enough to indicate poisoning, said Pulver. The highest lead level reading - 33 micrograms per deciliter - was recorded when he was 3 years old. Pulver, who was assisted by Dawn M. Collins, said the child averaged a lead level of 23 micrograms per deciliter during the years he lived in the Lafayette Avenue house.
"He's lost intelligence. He has trouble understanding, trouble comprehending language," said Pulver, a member of Yost Legal Group. "He's doing fine in school right now, but now is not when his deficit is going to kick in."
The house was tested several times for lead paint, but none was found inside the home. The lead paint was on the outside. According to trial testimony, the child often played outside as his grandmother watched him.
But Moore said the mere presence of lead-based paint would not constitute a problem. That would only happen if there was evidence the paint was "flaking, chipping or peeling," and there was no indication that was happening at the house, he said.
He described the child as being perfectly healthy and also pointed out that none of the boy's four brothers suffered from lead poisoning.
"I think what the jury focused on was that they thought the housing authority had not regularly inspected this house," said Moore. "I think that had a lot more to do with the decision than the evidence we presented."
Moore also said a definitive study has yet to be done to determine what amount of lead intake equals poisoning.
"There is a lot of literature out there and a lot of research, and basically it goes both ways," said Moore, who is with the West & Moore legal firm. "There's either end of the spectrum."
Civil jury judgments against the housing authority in lead paint cases are relatively rare, said Moore. The overwhelming majority are resolved before trial by summary judgment, motions to dismiss and other legal means. Moore said four of the approximately 100 cases he has handled in the past seven or eight years have gone to trial.
Whatever funds the child receives will be held in a trust until he turns 18, though he could petition the court to use the money for medical or educational reasons.