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New lead-paint verdict adds to HABC’s tab

A Baltimore City Circuit Court jury last week awarded nearly $1.3 million to a 17-year-old girl for brain damage caused by lead-based paint in the city-owned home where she lived from birth until age 2.

The award to Amafica Woodland is expected to be reduced to $690,000 due to Maryland’s statutory cap on non-economic damages, said her attorney, Scott E. Nevin.

Even then, collecting damages from the Housing Authority of Baltimore City could prove to be difficult.

HABC’s failure to pay or post bond pending appeal of a $2.6 million award in another lead-paint case prompted a court last year to order HABC to auction off about two dozen vehicles. The auction was called off when the underlying verdict was overturned on appeal.

Nevin said he is discouraged neither by HABC’s past reticence to post bond nor by the adage that you cannot get blood from a turnip.

“This turnip has lots of blood,” Nevin said. “They have lots of money and they also have property.”

Nevin added that he would, if necessary, retain a debt-collection attorney to recover the award.

“We’re willing to protect our client’s rights and collect from the housing authority what a jury found is fair and reasonable.”

Tania Baker, a spokeswoman for the HABC, said in an emailed statement Friday that the agency “will take into consideration all available legal options.”

Flag House residents

In Amafica Woodland’s case, the jury deliberated for three hours after a week-long trial before coming to a verdict on Wednesday. The plaintiff’s experts, including a pediatrician and neuropsychologist, testified that Amafica suffered cognitive deficits, learning disabilities, behavior problems and a loss of about seven IQ points from the two years she lived at 127 S. Albemarle St.

The property, part of Baltimore’s Flag House Projects, was built in 1957 and demolished in 2001. Amafica lived there from the time she was born, in 1995, until October 1997.

Her exposure came to light in September 1997 when she was tested and found to have lead levels of 13 micrograms per deciliter. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded in 1991 that concern for childhood lead poisoning begins at a blood lead level of 10 mcg/dl.

Amafica’s mother, Tanderlara Monterio, told HABC managers, who sent an environmental assessor to investigate.

The assessor did not test for lead, but based on a visual inspection, founded six areas in the home with flaking and chipping paint and stucco.

Mother and daughter were transferred from the home a short time later and Amafica’s blood-lead levels dropped, according to Nevin.

His law firm, the Law Offices of Peter T. Nicholl, filed a $5 million lawsuit against HABC in Baltimore City Circuit Court on April 22, 2009.

The complaint alleged HABC knew or had reason to know of the chipping, flaking and peeling paint prior to the assessor’s belated inspection. Thus, HABC was negligent in failing to take action to repair or warn the tenants of the lead exposure hazard Amafica faced.

The lawsuit also alleged that HABC engaged in unfair trade practices by leasing a property that was not in compliance with Baltimore’s housing code and that was unfit for human habitation. Nevin dropped that allegation during trial, because he could not show what the agency told Amafica’s grandmother when she first moved into the property in 1981. The grandmother died before trial.

The HABC denied the allegation that Amafica’s injuries were caused by lead ingestion at its property. It also presented expert witnesses, including a pediatric neurologist and neuropsychologist.

Stephen S. McCloskey, an attorney for HABC, referred all questions to the agency. McClosky is with Semmes, Bowen & Semmes in Baltimore.

The jury awarded Amafica $1,291,696, of which $1,131,696 was for non-economic damages and $160,000 for economic damages, namely loss of earning capacity. The non-economic damages will be capped at $530,000, Nevin said.

HABC uninsured

In the unrelated damages award that nearly spurred an auction of the HABC’s vehicles, the Court of Special Appeals held 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.

In written testimony before the city council last June, HABC Executive Director Paul Graziano said the authority cannot pay all lead-paint judgments because it lost its lead-liability insurance in 1996 and has little prospect of finding another underwriter.

“Even if HABC had been able to acquire lead liability coverage, it would not cover claims already filed or occurrences … that predate the inception of the policy,” Graziano added. “No commercially reasonable amount of insurance or self insurance would be adequate to cover the potential liability reflected in the claims asserted (exceeding $800 million).”

AMAFICA WOODLAND V. HOUSING AUTHORITY OF BALTIMORE CITY

Court:

Baltimore City Circuit Court

Case No.:

24C1109002708

Judge:

Alfred Nance

Outcome:

Jury verdict

Dates:

Event: 1995 to October 1997

Suit filed: April 22, 2009

Trial: April 24, 2012-May 2, 2012

Verdict: May 2, 2012

Plaintiff’s Attorneys:

Scott E. Nevin and William Beveridge Jr. of the Law Offices of Peter T. Nicholl in Baltimore

Defendant’s Attorneys:

J. Marks Moore III and Stephen S. McCloskey of Semmes, Bowen & Semmes in Baltimore.

Plaintiff’s Experts:

Barry Hurwitz, neuropsychologist; Jeanette McDaniel, pediatrician; Mark Lieberman, vocational rehabilitation; and Richard J. Lurito, economist

Defendant’s Experts:

Neil Hoffman, neuropsychologist; Joseph Scheller, pediatric neurologist; James Patrick, vocational rehabilitation, Joel Morse, economist; and Patrick Connor, lead risk assessor.

Count:

Negligence.