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Md. court lets malpractice claim proceed against Kerpelman firm

Veteran lead-paint litigator Saul E. Kerpelman said the defense verdict an ‘aberration,’ noting the jury was not allowed to consider fraud and intentional misrepresentation counts against KKI. (File photo)

Veteran lead-paint litigator Saul E. Kerpelman. (File photo)

An alleged victim of childhood lead poisoning in the 1980s can pursue her malpractice lawsuit against the law firm she claims settled with the landlord for too little money nearly 30 years ago and failed to tell her of the settlement when she and the firm sued the landlord again in 2003, a Maryland appeals court has ruled.

Natashia Woods says she only learned of the settlement when the landlord, Kenneth Mumaw, stated in court papers that her 2003 lawsuit was barred by the $1,000 settlement he reached in 1988 with her mother, who was also represented by Saul E. Kerpelman & Associates P.A. The Baltimore City Circuit Court agreed with Mumaw and dismissed Woods’ lawsuit in 2005, a decision upheld by the Court of Special Appeals in 2012.

Woods then sued the law firm for malpractice in June 2015, but the Baltimore City Circuit Court dismissed that lawsuit as well, saying she had failed to file within three years of when she knew or should have known she had a malpractice claim against Kerpelman.

But the Court of Special Appeals, in an unreported opinion filed last week, ruled Woods filed her malpractice claim in time and sent the case back for trial.

Saul E. Kerpelman, the Baltimore firm’s managing partner, said the appellate court’s 3-0 decision merely permits the lawsuit to go to trial; the ruling did not address the merits of Woods’ malpractice claim.

“We have denied the allegations of the complaint,” Kerpelman said. “The allegations of the complaint are not true.”

Woods’ attorney, Stewart A. Sutton, said he and his client are “pleased” with the appellate court’s decision and “look forward to this matter being litigated on the merits” at trial.

“My client, Natashia Woods, had the misfortune of retaining the one attorney in all of Maryland who had the motivation to conceal from her the fact that her 1986 lead paint case against the same landlord had been settled by Mr. Kerpelman for the inadequate amount of $1,000,” added Sutton, a Germantown solo practitioner.

Brother’s settlement

In her lawsuit, Woods alleges Kerpelman breached a lawyer’s standard of care by settling the 1986 case without having discovered whether the landlord had liability insurance or other assets that could satisfy a judgment against him. Kerpelman also failed to include a provision in the settlement agreement that would render it void if it was later discovered that Mumaw had insurance or other assets, Woods claims.

Woods also alleges that Kerpelman agreed to pursue her 2003 lead-paint case against Mumaw without telling her of the 1986 settlement until 2005, when the landlord sought dismissal because the case had already been decided, known in the law as res judicata.

In addition, Kerpelman failed to tell her she had a potential malpractice claim against the firm for mishandling the 1986 case and then tried to cover up that error by alleging Mumaw and his counsel had misrepresented the landlord’s liability insurance coverage, Woods alleges.

The Kerpelman firm, in court papers, countered that Woods knew or should have known of her potential malpractice suit against the firm as early as 2005, when she learned of the 1988 settlement. Kerpelman added that Woods should have known of her claim as late as 2009, when her brother reached a $450,000 lead-paint settlement with Mumaw in a case involving the same residence. The Kerpelman firm also represented Woods’ brother.

Woods’ lawsuit against the firm, therefore, had to have been brought by 2012 at the latest to satisfy the three-year statute of limitations, the firm argued in successfully getting the case dismissed by the circuit court.

But the Court of Special Appeals said the three-year clock did not start until Dec. 3, 2012. On that date, the mandate became official in the Court of Special Appeals’ earlier decision upholding the circuit court’s dismissal of Woods’ lawsuit against Mumaw.

Thus, the June 2015 filing of Woods’ lawsuit against Kerpelman was filed within the three-year time limit, the Court of Special Appeals court said in sending the malpractice case back for trial.

“On the facts alleged by Natashia, reasonable jurors could find that her cause of action against Kerpelman for legal malpractice did not accrue until the firm ceased representing her, on Dec. 3, 2012, under the continuation of events doctrine,” Judge Deborah S. Eyler wrote for the appellate court. “Reasonable jurors also could find that Natashia could not have discovered the existence of her claim by ordinary diligence because she relied on Kerpelman to advise her of all information that is significant and material to the mater that is the subject of the relationship, including the existence of a potential malpractice claim for the handling of the 1986 lead paint case.”

The Kerpelman firm is represented by attorney Jason R. Waters of Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP in Baltimore.

Eyler was joined in the opinion by Judges Kathryn Grill Graeff and Irma S. Raker, a retired jurist sitting by special assignment.

The Court of Special Appeals issued its decision in Natashia Woods v. Saul E. Kerpelman & Associates P.A. et al., No. 1972, September Term 2015.

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