By Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun
12:50 AM EDT, April 5, 2011
Echoing her housing commissioner, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Monday that Baltimore's public housing authority has decided "it is not possible" to pay lead-poisoning judgments that could one day exceed $800 million because the money is needed to improve living conditions for thousands of poor families.
But Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, who helped write Maryland's 1996 lead law, said Monday that the authority cannot plead poverty when children suffered brain damage while living in public housing.
"The housing authority has to find a way to meet its legal obligation to the children whom a jury and a judge found were poisoned for life because of the negligence of the housing authority," the Baltimore Democrat said.
The officials spoke a day after The Baltimore Sun reported that the Housing Authority of Baltimore City is refusing to pay nearly $12 million in existing judgments, even though in some cases it agreed to the dollar amount or lost on appeal.
Rosenberg criticized the authority for using "legalisms and Dickensian maneuvers to avoid their liability."
The authority's outside lawyers have tried several strategies over the past decade to fight lawsuits and attempts by victorious plaintiffs to collect damages. The strategies ranged from arguing legal immunity to claiming more recently that most of its assets are federal and therefore off-limits to plaintiffs.
Baltimore's housing authority — the fifth largest in the country, with an annual budget of around $300 million — is an independent entity overseen by a board of commissioners appointed by the mayor. Its executive director, Paul T. Graziano, also serves as Rawlings-Blake's housing commissioner.
Graziano said last week that he is "totally sympathetic and sensitive" to families affected by lead poisoning, but the authority has no intention of paying the claims.
Legal arguments aside, he said, the authority cannot afford to pay present and future claims.
"Every dollar we spend on judgments is one less dollar that is available for major capital needs," he said.
Rawlings-Blake declined an interview request through her spokesman. Her office issued a statement.
"It is a tragedy when any individual suffers lead poisoning during childhood," the statement said. "These claims involve incidents that occurred prior to the implementation of Maryland's lead law in 1996 and involve issues going back as far as two decades."
Rawlings-Blake did not address the existing judgments, referring instead to pending claims that Graziano says could eventually exceed $800 million.
The mayor pointedly broke up that sum into two chunks based on a calculation that lawyers could claim 30 percent of awards: She said up to $560 million would go "to plaintiffs" and "up to $240 million to a handful of private lawyers."
David F. Albright Jr., a lawyer who represents plaintiffs in lead paint cases, responded to her statement by asking, "How about the children who were damaged in the past? They're just forgotten."
Regarding the mayor's knock on lawyers, he said, "Who else is going to stand up for the children?"
A city housing spokeswoman said late Monday that the housing authority has appealed a combined $2.59 million jury award for siblings Antonio Fulgham, 21, and Brittany McCutcheon, 20. The two were interviewed and photographed for The Sun's original article.
In an email, housing spokeswoman Cheron Porter wrote that the evidence at trial showed that both housing authority units where Fulgham and McCutcheon lived as children in the early 1990s were "lead free."
"There was direct evidence of the absence of any lead-based paint at one address and direct evidence of the absence of lead-based dust at the other address," she wrote.
Albright, their lawyer, said it's true the testing company found only "minimal" amounts of lead. But he said officials of the company refused to testify at trial last year. He asserted that the company had not properly calibrated its testing equipment. Both housing units were demolished years ago.
Albright said the jury weighed "circumstantial evidence" that the two housing authority properties were the only places where the children lived when they were lead-poisoned. Their mother testified that she saw flaking paint.
The jury sided with Fulgham and McCutcheon. Because the housing authority has not posted an appeal bond — similar to putting the jury award in escrow — legal experts say Albright is free to pursue collection while the authority appeals.
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