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Md. Court of Special Appeals upholds $1.45M lead-paint verdict

The Court of Special Appeals has upheld a $1.45 million verdict awarded to a woman who alleged she suffered brain damage due to her exposure to lead paint in a Baltimore rowhouse where she lived as a child.

The verdict, which was reduced to about $1.1 million after the state’s cap on noneconomic damages was applied, was handed down in November 2014 by the second jury to hear the case. The first trial, held in March 2014, yielded a $1.3 million verdict for plaintiff Starlena Stevenson. But the trial judge threw out the award because an expert witness for Stevenson offered testimony at trial that differed from the opinions he had given during discovery, amounting to an “unfair surprise” for the defense.

In her lawsuit filed in 2011, Stevenson alleged she had suffered lead poisoning after she was exposed to flaking and chipping lead paint while living at a house on the 3800 block of Fairview Avenue between October 1991 and January 1993. That property was owned by defendants Stanley Rochkind and S&S Partnership and managed by Dear Management and Construction Co.

During the first trial before Baltimore City Circuit Judge Stephen J. Sfekas, several experts testified about Stevenson’s cognitive impairments and their likely negative impact on her ability to find employment and her potential future earnings, as well as the extent to which the Fairview house was a “substantial contributing cause” to her elevated blood lead levels.

Defense experts testified that genetic factors likely played a “large role” in Stevenson’s cognitive deficit but that her loss in IQ points from exposure to lead would not have had an apparent effect on her cognitive functioning. The jury ultimately ruled in favor of Stevenson, awarding her $829,000 in economic damages and $539,000 in noneconomic damages, which would be subject to a cap.

Rochkind moved for a new trial, claiming the testimony of an expert who said he believed Stevenson would not be able to earn more than minimum wage, as well as that of another expert who relied on that opinion in calculating Stevenson’s economic damages, should not have been allowed.

Sfekas in April 2014 granted a partial new trial on damages only, finding that Stevenson did not need to once again prove the defendants liable for her injuries. A lawyer for Stevenson said at the time he could think of only one other instance when a judge ordered a new trial on damages in a lead-paint case.

After the second trial, the jury again returned a verdict for Stevenson, awarding her $753,000 in economic damages and $700,000 in non-economic damages in November 2014.

Rochkind claimed in his appeal that issues of damages and liability were “inextricably intertwined” and that the scope of the second trial was incorrectly limited to damages alone.

But the intermediate appellate court affirmed the verdict in an unreported opinion July 20, finding that Sfekas was correct in ordering a partial new trial on damages rather than a full trial that would have allowed Rochkind to introduce evidence showing that lead paint was not the primary or only cause of Stevenson’s cognitive impairments.

M. Natalie McSherry of Kramon & Graham P.A., an attorney for Rochkind, did not immediately return a call Tuesday seeking comment on the ruling. Robert Leonard and Scott E. Nevin of The Law Offices of Peter T. Nicholl, who represented Stevenson, were not available to comment Tuesday.

The case is Stanley Rochkind v. Starlena Stevenson, No. 418, September Term 2015.