A Baltimore City Circuit Court jury Thursday awarded a total of more than $4.6 million in damages to two young adults who suffered permanent brain damage as a result of lead poisoning.
The siblings ingested lead as children while residing in homes managed by the city’s housing authority.
The award from the six-member jury, however, will be reduced to at most $2.9 million under Maryland’s statutory cap on non-economic damages in civil suits, said attorneys in the case.
According to the complaint, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City negligently failed to treat flaking and peeling paint in houses where Antonio Fulgham and his sister Brittany McCutcheon resided in their infancy and toddler years. Fulgham, now 21, has an intelligence quotient of 54; 19-year-old McCutcheon has an IQ of 69, according to their attorney David F. Albright Jr.
The housing authority denied the allegations of negligence.
Albright said the multimillion-dollar verdict sends the message that “landlords need to take good care of their properties.” The housing authority “did nothing to fix the paint in either property,” added Albright, of Bennett & Albright PA in Baltimore.
Fulgham and McCutcheon each said justice was served by the jury’s verdict.
HABC, in a statement, said it was reviewing the case to determine if it will appeal.
“We strongly disagree with the verdict,” HABC stated. “Additionally, we are thoroughly disappointed that the jury chose not to acknowledge the lead free test results since it was critical evidence and showed there was no hazard on these two properties. That exclusion is significant.”
For the first two years of his life, from 1989 to 1991, Fulgham lived with his mother, Tonia Blue, at 734 W. Fayette St., an HABC-operated house that contained chipping and flaking paint on its walls, doors, floors, ceilings and woodwork, according to the complaint. In 1991, the year McCutcheon was born, the family moved to 1816 W. Fayette St., another HABC property with a similar paint problem, the complaint stated.
They lived there until 1995.
While at the houses, Fulgham and McCutcheon ingested the paint, causing lead poisoning and brain damage, according to the complaint.
HABC negligently “caused or allowed” the paint to chip and flake, rendering the homes “dangerous and unfit for human habitation, especially for children of tender years,” Albright stated in the complaint.
The authority also failed to “adequately and properly keep the premises free of chipping, peeling and flaking paint” when the agency should have known that these “older” houses contained lead-based paint, the attorney added.
“Further, at the time of the children’s poisoning, the general state of knowledge was such … that landlords in general knew or had reason to know or should have known of the dangers of lead-based pain in older houses to children,” the complaint stated.
The lawsuit alleged violations of Baltimore’s housing code and the Maryland Consumer Protection Act.
HABC countered in court papers that the houses “were at all relevant times free from lead-based paint and/or chipping, flaking or peeling paint” and that the family never notified HABC of any such conditions. HABC added that any injuries sustained by Fulgham and McCutcheon were caused by “independent, intervening or supervening causes.”
After an eight-day trial and about 90 minutes of deliberations, the jury awarded $2,423,000 to Fulgham, including $1.5 million in non-economic damages, and $2.22 million to McCutcheon, including $1.25 million in non-economic damages, Albright stated.
The non-economic damages award will be reduced by an amount based on when Fulgham and McCutcheon were injured by their ingestion of the paint between 1989 and 1995. That calculation will be made at an as-yet unscheduled post-trial hearing, Albright said.
The relevant statutory cap per plaintiff in the case stretches from a low of $350,000 in 1989 and 1991, the years each sibling was born, to a high of $515,000 in 1995, when they moved from the second home.
Thus, the combined award could be as high as $2.9 million or as low as $2.6 million after the cap on non-economic damages is imposed.
“It’s not about the numbers,” Albright said. “It’s about justice.”