Baltimore lead paint verdict overturned

Appeals court orders new trial in 2004 lawsuit over harm to child

December 02, 2010|By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

A $590,000 jury award to a mother who said her child was harmed by lead paint in the family's rented Baltimore home was overturned this week by the state's second-highest court.

The Court of Special Appeals ordered a new trial to determine whether Tyaih Dodd suffered lead paint poisoning in the house in the 2200 block of E. Lanvale St. It was among about 700 houses controlled by companies connected to Stanley Rochkind that fell under a 2001 consent order with the Maryland Department of the Environment to reduce or eliminate lead paint hazards. Allowing Dodd's family to enter that order as evidence for the jury to see, with its fine of up to $90,000, was prejudicial, the court ruled. It was among the reasons the verdict was overturned.

Rochkind at one time controlled 1,000 rental properties in the city through a number of companies. In 1999, Martin O'Malley returned a $1,000 contribution to his mayoral campaign from Rochkind's wife after the advocacy group ACORN criticized Stanley Rochkind for the condition of his buildings. Rochkind disputed ACORN allegations.

Elevated levels of lead in the blood are considered dangerous, especially to children, because lead exposure has been associated with brain damage and other nervous system disorders.

A defense expert concluded that Tyaih, at age 6, had a number of difficulties, including with social skills, self-control and mental abilities, according to evidence in the case.

Aaron I. Lubling, one of the lawyers for Rochkind, hailed the opinion issued Wednesday as "an important case for the Maryland lead paint defense bar."

He said the opinion, which can be cited as precedent for future cases, shows that "the rules of evidence apply to lead paint plaintiffs as well as other plaintiffs."

The consent order, he said, was an important piece of evidence for Danielle Finch and her daughter, Tyaih, who was 4 years old when the lawsuit was filed in 2004.

"The only purpose to send [the jurors] back to deliberate with this document was to inflame and enrage the jury about this issue," Lubling said.

The family's lawyer, Scott E. Nevin, said he was disappointed with the ruling but is prepared to retry the case.

He said the purpose of including the consent order was to tie Rochkind to the house where Tyaih lived by showing that he was the person behind the companies listed. In the order, Rochkind guaranteed that the companies would bring the homes into compliance with the law. The penalty in the order included $40,000 in escrow for not complying, and he was the person who guaranteed that amount.

"The fact that the state of Maryland is aware that Mr. Rochkind is involved with these properties, we felt, was relevant to the case," Nevin said.

However, he said, other changes in the law since the case was tried will reduce the importance of the document to his case in the retrial in Baltimore Circuit Court.

The appeals court also ruled that the instructions to the trial jury and verdict sheet were faulty. In a retrial, the jury will have to decide whether Rochkind was an owner or operator of the house and if he was, whether he was to blame. In the first trial, the defense request for a separate question on whether Rochkind was an owner or operator of the house was turned down by the judge. Nevin said he thinks the city's housing code is broad enough to cover Rochkind, and that the change will make little if any difference.

In 2008, a Baltimore jury awarded $1.7 million to Finch and her child, and the amount was reduced under a state cap on damage awards.

Under the consent order, the Maryland Department of the Environment determined that not all of the work was done, and demanded $17,000 from the $40,000 escrow account, MDE officials said Wednesday. Rochkind and the companies appealed, and the issue was settled in 2005 for $10,000. The work was done by 2006, officials said.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

Lead paint tips

The U.S. Environmental Protection agency suggests that if you suspect that your house has lead hazards, start by taking these steps:

•If you rent, notify your landlord of peeling or chipping paint.

•Clean up paint chips immediately.

•Clean floors, window frames, window sills, and other surfaces weekly. Use a mop, sponge, or paper towel with warm water and an all-purpose cleaner or one made specifically for lead. Thoroughly rinse sponges and mop heads after cleaning.

•Wash children's hands often, especially before they eat and before bedtime.

•Keep play areas clean. Wash bottles, pacifiers, toys and stuffed animals regularly.

•Keep children from chewing window sills or other painted surfaces.

•Clean or remove shoes before entering your home to avoid tracking in lead from soil.

•Make sure children eat nutritious meals as recommended by the National Dietary Guidelines. Children with healthful diets absorb less lead.

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