Legal shenanigans

June 05, 2006

Faced with more than a dozen lawsuits by public housing tenants claiming injuries from exposure to lead paint, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City is crying broke in an improper effort to prevent the cases from even being heard in court. This questionable pre-emptive move to avoid paying damages seeks to bypass the legal process while also using it to the authority's advantage.

The lawsuits in question were filed by 13 current and former public housing tenants who say their children were harmed by lead paint exposure while living in city-owned housing between 1988 and 1997. The housing authority recently filed a complaint with the Baltimore Circuit Court requesting a ruling declaring the agency "has no funds, and therefore no ability to pay any judgment entered against it."

The lawsuits cited in the city's complaint involve 28 children, but dozens of similar lawsuits against the housing authority are either pending or expected to be filed.

The authority has indeed been forced to cut spending and make tough fiscal decisions over the last few years as the federal government has steadily reduced its funding. Nonetheless, this move to circumvent its legal responsibilities should not be among its money-saving solutions. Housing authorities around the country have also suffered federal budget cuts and faced similar lawsuits, and few, if any, have resorted to the "we're too broke to pay" defense as a serious legal strategy.

The city may have the legal right to employ such a tactic, but this doesn't make its actions right. The effects of lead poisoning are well established. The families should be allowed to have their day in court to seek redress, and the court, not the housing authority, should determine whether the agency should pay.

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