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Lead-paint verdict against HABC overturned on appeal

The $2.5 million lead-paint verdict that spurred a move to seize and auction vehicles owned by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City was reversed on appeal Thursday afternoon.

Paul Graziano

The Court of Special Appeals said the case should never have gone to trial because the brother-and-sister plaintiffs, Antonio Fulgham and Brittany McCutcheon, waited too long to sue, and the 13-year delay had prejudiced the HABC.

Paul T. Graziano, the HABC’s executive director and the city’s housing commissioner, released a statement saying the reversal nullified the pending seizure of his agency’s vehicles, which lawyers for Fulgham and McCutcheon sought to auction in partial payment of the damages a jury awarded them in 2010.

“HABC is committed to addressing lead paint judgments in a fair and responsible way, however, we also have responsibility to defend against unfounded lawsuits to protect limited resources for the 50,000 low income housing residents we serve today,” Graziano said in the statement. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did not return a request for comment.

David F. Albright Jr., the Baltimore lawyer who tried the case, said he planned to take the case to the state’s highest court.

“We will seek review by the Court of Appeals and continue to fight for the children,” Albright said.

Albright, who is representing hundreds of other former HABC tenants in lead-paint poisoning suits against the agency, declined to comment on the grounds for the appellate court’s opinion. The decision is not binding on other cases.

Thursday’s reversal is the latest move in a larger battle between hundreds of former tenants in city public housing units and the HABC, which so far has resulted in $12 million in judgments against the agency.

For months, Graziano has said the agency is unable to pay lead-paint verdicts because it would deplete its resources.

The HABC operates under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a federal agency. Since much of the authority’s assets are owned by the federal government, the property is out of reach for court-ordered levies by plaintiffs.

Late last year, though, attorneys identified a small fleet of Ford, Chevrolet and GMC trucks, vans and a Bobcat not owned by the federal government, as well as computers and other office supplies, said Evan Goldman, another attorney for Fulgham and McCutcheon.

They obtained a court order and, on Jan. 3, officials of the Baltimore Sheriff’s Office tagged the nearly two dozen vehicles for seizure and auction.

One week later, the Court of Special Appeals heard the HABC’s appeal of the underlying verdicts.

In its decision Thursday, the appellate court said the Baltimore circuit court judge who allowed the suit to go to trial was wrong in concluding the HABC had not been prejudiced by the lengthy delay.

Fulgham and McCutcheon claimed they were poisoned in two HABC properties between 1989 and 1996. They sued in December 2007, when Fulgham was 18 and McCutcheon was 16.

In the interim, the HABC’s maintenance records were routinely destroyed after three years, employees had left the agency, and Lexington Terrace, one of the two residences involved in the suit, was razed in 1996.

Under the circumstances, “a finding that there was no prejudice was an abuse of discretion,” Judge Kathryn Grill Graeff wrote for the appellate panel.