Jury awards $4 million in lead case

Damages could be reduced under state-cap law, attorney for city housing authority says

August 11, 2007|By Alia Malik | Alia Malik,Sun reporter

The verdict — A city jury has found that the Housing Authority of Baltimore City should pay $4 million in damages to two siblings poisoned by lead paint in their publicly owned rowhouse in the 1980s.

The verdict - issued Thursday - directed $2.5 million to Joseph Avery Jr., 23, of the 3000 block of Rosedale Court and $1.5 million to his sister, Lisa Avery, 21, of the 1700 block of McCulloh St.

The family filed suit against the housing authority in 2005.

The damages could be reduced to a maximum of $350,000 for each sibling under the state payment caps in place at the time they were tested for lead poisoning, said J. Marks Moore III, the attorney for the housing authority's insurance company. The city may appeal the verdict.

But Bruce H. Powell, the Averys' attorney, said he plans on challenging the state cap in a post-trial hearing Aug. 29.

"You have a right to a jury trial, and you have a right to what the jury awards you," Powell said. "The jury thought that they were compensating these people in a way that was fair, and that's not the case."

Lead poisoning, which often occurs when children ingest chipped household paint, can cause mental problems, including cognitive deficits and aggressive behavior.

At the four-day trial, a vocational rehabilitation expert testified that the Avery siblings show symptoms of lead poisoning. Both were in special education, and neither earned a high school diploma.

Last year, 1,274 children in Maryland had lead poisoning, according to statistics from the Maryland Department of the Environment.

That figure includes 936 newly reported cases, 573 of which occurred in Baltimore.

As more research has emerged highlighting effects of lead poisoning, the amount in damages paid by property owners has increased, Moore said.

Since the early 1990s, Moore has handled at least 200 lead poisoning cases for the housing authority, with 10 reaching trial. When he started, a typical verdict ordered $200,000 in damage payments, he said.

"Now, you see just about all of them in the millions," he said. "They really don't have a basis in relation to the underlying facts of the case. I think they're excessive."

The housing authority deferred questions about its lead poisoning cases to Moore.

Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of Baltimore's Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, said that most current cases of childhood lead poisoning can be blamed on private landlords rather than public housing.

Many city houses built through the 1950s included lead paint. Since it was banned nationwide in 1978, the city has worked to repair lead-tainted houses it owns and reach out to poisoned children, Norton said.

"There has been much progress made there in the intervening 20 years, and so a child living in city-owned housing today would have hopefully a much different experience," she said.

The Averys' mother, Trina Ashley, moved into a Gilmor Homes rowhouse on Bakbury Court in 1984, shortly before giving birth to Joseph. The housing authority had built the home in 1940 with specifications that indicated that lead paint was used.

While living in the home, Ashley repeatedly complained about flaking lead paint, Powell said. In 1986 and 1987, the children were tested for lead and found to have levels that were acceptable at the time but later considered poisonous by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards.

In 1988, the Health Department tested the home for chipped lead paint and found it in five locations.

The only location where the lead concentration exceeded acceptable amounts was the front door, and whether the now-deceased surveyor's report indicated lead had been found in the other locations was a trial issue.

A month after the house was tested, the family moved.

alia.malik@baltsun.com

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