Baltimore lead paint victim struggles for justice

Family says lawyers mishandled lawsuit, want to re-open case

  • Ronnell Doughty stands in front of the house that he lived in as a boy where he said he was poisioned by flaking lead paint.
Ronnell Doughty stands in front of the house that he lived in… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
May 16, 2011|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

Justice has eluded Ronnell Doughty, perhaps even failed him.

Hospitalized as a toddler with serious lead poisoning, he's never learned to read well, dropped out of school and has a hard time controlling his temper — tragic but all-too-common outcomes of this urban health scourge.

But Doughty, now 21, has been repeatedly denied a shot at compensation for the lasting injury done him two decades ago. His family says in court papers that two lawyers mishandled the lawsuit on his behalf against the landlords of the East Baltimore rowhouse where he allegedly ingested toxic lead from flaking paint. Both lawyers were subsequently disbarred for other reasons, according to court records.

Now a new lawyer is trying against long legal odds to reopen his case, 14 years after it was thrown out without ever going to trial. Alan J. Mensh recently argued before a state appeals court that Doughty deserves his day in court because of fraud perpetrated by the family's second lawyer — they say he lied about the case's outcome — and because the judge and court personnel failed to act on indications that something was amiss.

"Equity screams out in this case," Mensh said in oral arguments before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

But a Baltimore Circuit Court judge already has refused to reopen the long-closed case, despite agreeing that a "great injustice" has been done to Doughty. And a recording of the recent appellate hearing in Annapolis indicates at least two of the three judges who heard the arguments there were also skeptical, if sympathetic.

"We have a little bit of an uphill battle," Mensh said in an interview.

The family's lawsuit was thrown out in 1997, court records show, after their lawyer at the time, Anthony K. Waters, failed to respond to a motion by the defendants to dismiss the case. And he showed up late for a hearing on the motion, after the judge had already granted it.

But Waters apparently didn't tell the family the case had been thrown out. Elva White, Doughty's grandmother and legal guardian, said in an affidavit that Waters told her the case had been settled, but the youth wouldn't see any money until he turned 18. White said she didn't learn the truth until a couple of years ago, after she asked Mensh to find out what happened to the settlement.

"It's unfair and unjust," White, now 57, said in an interview at Mensh's office. "I did what I was supposed to do as far as getting legal counsel."

Dennis C. Whelley, the lawyer for Benjamin and Karen Kirson, the Montgomery County couple that owned the house at 943 Montpelier St. where Doughty's family claimed he was lead-poisoned, declined to discuss the case.

During the recent hearing, Whelley agreed that the circumstances involving the Doughtys' lawyers were troubling. But he argued that his clients had followed the rules in seeking to have the suit dismissed, and there was no legal basis for reinstating it.

"There was nothing done by our side," Whelley said.

Ronnell Doughty was just a year old when a blood test revealed he had an alarmingly high level of lead in his system — nearly five times the "level of concern" set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The toddler was hospitalized and underwent a series of painful injections and other treatments at the Kennedy Institute for Handicapped Children, now Kennedy Krieger. His case was featured in a 1991 series in The Evening Sun about Baltimore's stubborn epidemic of childhood lead poisoning. According to White, then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke visited her grandson in the hospital after the publicity.

Lead is a powerful neurotoxin, and ingesting even small amounts can impair developing young brains and nervous systems, affecting a child's ability to learn and control his or her behavior.

Doctors didn't see any problems with Doughty at first, but medical records in the court file show that seven years later when he returned for another evaluation they found him "extremely jittery" and reading with "extreme difficulty." His grandmother told them he was constantly disruptive in school and had been suspended multiple times. The doctor diagnosed him with "global learning disability" and recommended giving him a stimulant medication to help him focus.

In the meantime, the family had filed suit in 1992 against the Kirsons on Doughty's behalf. The family's first lawyer was Joseph H. Thomas Jr., who White said had represented her in another matter. Thomas filed one motion for discovery of evidence in three years, while the landlords' lawyer filed 11, according to court records.

In early 1997, Thomas notified White by letter that he had been suspended from law practice. He turned her grandson's case over to Waters. According to court records, Waters assured White he had handled lead-poisoning cases before.

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