Bill called a threat to lead lawsuits

Advocates say measure would protect landlords

General Assembly

March 12, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A bill in the House of Delegates that makes no mention of lead would deny most families with children poisoned by the toxin the right to sue their landlords for damages, advocates say.

Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, said the landlord-backed legislation would roll back "decades of progress" in dealing with one of Baltimore's most serious health problems.

"It's a stealth bill," she said. "It would put many, many more kids in harm's way if this bill were allowed to go through."

The legislation bears the innocuous title of "Landlord and Tenant -- Liability of Landlord." But according to a veteran lobbyist, the bill is what is known in Annapolis as a "snake" -- proposed legislation that would benefit a special interest in a way that is not apparent on its face.

"It's a big anaconda," said Albert "Buz" Winchester, a former Maryland State Bar Association lobbyist who spent years ferreting out such legislative creatures. "Its intent does not appear anywhere in the bill."

Kathy Howard, legislative director of the Multi-Family Housing Association, said her group asked Del. George W. Owings III, a Calvert County Democrat, to sponsor the bill on its behalf. She denied any intent to conceal the bill's purpose.

"I never thought I drafted anything to look like a snake," she said. "I certainly don't see it as anything but a bill to clarify what we thought was the law in this state."

She acknowledged, however, that nothing in the bill excluded cases involving lead, which can cause severe and irreversible brain damage to children who ingest it.

Advocates for children's heath say the bill appears to be aimed at overturning a case decided by the Court of Appeals in November. The state's highest court ruled in a lead-paint case that under Baltimore's housing code, landlords can be held liable for damages from a violation even if the tenant didn't give notice of the problem.

Norton said the court decision was fair to tenants.

"They rely on the owner to provide a safe dwelling. That's a basic expectation," she said.

The bill puts the burden of identifying a lead problem on the tenant, but also goes further. It specifically pre-empts local law, weakening the basis for the court's decision. And it applies to injuries resulting from housing code violations -- not just lead paint.

Another provision of the bill would prevent a tenant from suing unless the landlord was notified in writing of a problem that led to an injury. That notice would have to come either from the tenant by certified mail or from a government agency as a notice of violation.

Advocates say those requirements pose huge barriers to a tenant's ability to file a lawsuit on behalf of an injured child.

David F. Albright Jr., a Baltimore lawyer who handles lead-paint cases, said that many plaintiffs do not know how to write a letter, do not understand certified mail and don't have the money to send such a communication. And if the landlord doesn't sign for the mail, he said, the courts won't consider that he has received proper notice.

"A landlord has no incentive to sign for a certified letter because many landlords will actually believe the envelope contains suit papers," he said.

Howard said the intent of the bill is not to escape liability for lead-paint violations but to make sure tenants notify their landlords of problems.

"Otherwise, you'd be stuck with your tenant 24 hours a day to be sure you didn't have a problem you don't know about and didn't have a chance to fix," she said.

She also defended the certified mail requirement, calling it "the best way to give notice."

"There's noting underhanded about certified mail, but if that's a concern, we'll talk about it," she said.

Owings, the bill's sponsor, acknowledged introducing the bill on behalf of the landlords' organization. He said he was unaware of the lead-paint advocates' concerns.

"It was my fault for not reading it in depth," he said. "It's now obvious that it needs some work."

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