Residents of East 26th Street in Charles Village are seeking compensation from the city and CSX Transportation for damages suffered when they were displaced from their homes by a landslide in April that sent half their block crumbling onto railroad tracks below.
The residents have hired teams of attorneys at three law firms, who have asked the city and railroad operator to meet them at the negotiating table or see them in court. They contend they should have been at the negotiating table when the city and CSX hashed out an agreement to split the cost of fixing the street.
"It makes sense right now, given that the city and the railroad both failed these residents and let this thing happen, and really forced significant emotional trauma and disruption for the residents of this block, who still remain uncomfortable in their homes," Hassan Murphy, an attorney with Baltimore-based Murphy Falcon Murphy, said Friday. He is representing more than 15 residents of the block.
Calls for negotiations come as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake plans to meet with residents Sunday to discuss the findings of a city investigation into the landslide, which will be released publicly after the event. Spokesman Kevin Harris said the mayor remains most interested in what's best for the residents of the block and for city taxpayers.
"The mayor's commitment was to make sure that everybody got back into their homes as quickly and as safely as possible and to make sure we did an exhaustive review to find out how this happened and what we can do," he said. "Her commitment to that doesn't change if there are residents who believe it is in their interest to pursue litigation against the city."
The city paid for residents' hotel stays, transportation and food costs during their displacement because "it was the right thing to do," Harris said, and officials will continue to address their needs.
The homeowners and their families were displaced by the landslide for several weeks, and have complained that they warned the city of problems on the street for years without much response. The landslide occurred after a large retaining wall holding the block above a parallel cut of CSX railroad tracks gave out amid heavy rains.
Rob Doolittle, a CSX spokesman, said the company is "not willing to comment on potential litigation" but remains "focused on working with the city to resolve the issues related to the collapse and moving forward on this and other issues."
What caused the collapse and who was responsible have been the subject of much speculation. At the meeting Sunday, residents will be briefed on what might have contributed to the collapse and on changes the city has made to prevent similar disasters, Harris said.
The meeting is scheduled for noon in the second-floor conference room at the FutureCare Homewood Building at 2700 N. Charles St.
Murphy said the city has done a good job informing residents about progress on the reconstruction of the wall, which is expected to last at least through November.
But, he said, residents should have been included in negotiations between the city and CSX, which resulted this week in the cost-sharing agreement.
Without involving residents, the city and CSX ignored their "real and legitimate and substantial" claims for compensation; without such discussions, the claims could lead to protracted litigation and complicate the city's financial arrangements with CSX, Murphy said.
"It doesn't make any sense to leave a big gaping hole on the balance sheet," he said of the residents' claims.
Jeff Bowman, an attorney with Annapolis-based Baldwin Kagan & Gormley, said he represents five property owners on the block who also are seeking settlement negotiations. He and Murphy declined to outline what damages their clients are claiming.
Murphy and Bowman said they are in discussions with one another and with attorneys at the Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos, which is representing other residents of the block. Representatives from the Angelos firm could not be reached for comment.
The amount the city could be forced to pay out is limited by state restrictions on local jurisdiction liability, but those involved in the case don't agree on what the law says about the cap.
Harris said the landslide was one occurrence, and state law restricts payouts to all claimants for that single incident to $500,000. However, Murphy said the standard that applies is a $200,000 limit per claimant.
Taking the case into litigation could become extremely expensive for the city and CSX, said Steve Kelly, an attorney with Baltimore-based Silverman Thompson Slutkin White. He is not involved in the landslide claims but has litigated similar cases, from both the defense and plaintiff sides.
Baltimore juries tend to be liberal with damage awards — they are among the most generous in the nation — and Baltimore judges tend to let juries make the call in such cases, Kelly said. The residents' attorneys would likely play up the potentially deadly nature of the landslide, another factor that could increase damages, he said.
"That's what a Baltimore jury is going to be looking at: 'Man, I could have been walking down that street, I could have been walking on that sidewalk, that could have been my kid, that could have been my wife,' " Kelly said.
He also said the city's attorneys played their cards right by reaching an agreement with CSX first to limit their exposure to protracted litigation with the railroad and present a united front regarding third-party claims.
As part of the agreement to split about $15 million in street reconstruction costs, the city and CSX agreed to collaborate on a defense against any third-party claims and split the costs of any damages awarded, albeit with the city's liability limited.
The agreement prior to any litigation restricts "ammunition" CSX and the city otherwise would have used to blame each other if they were defending against the claims independently, Kelly said.
For example, it had been unclear who was responsible for maintaining the wall because of the city's convoluted railroad-abutting property lines. CSX assumed responsibility under the new agreement but did not forfeit the right to assert future degradation caused by the city.
At the meeting Sunday, Rawlings-Blake plans to answer some of the lingering questions, Harris said.
At the mayor's request, Harris said, the report addresses the discrepancy between residents' contention that their warnings about problems went unheeded and officials' contention that city agencies had responded to the complaints.
"People really could have lost their lives, and you have to do everything in your power to determine where the disconnect was," Harris said. The report also addresses changes the city has made to inspections of major infrastructure.
However, it will not offer "one conclusive" cause for the collapse, he said, or assign blame.
"We're not looking to point fingers at anybody," he said. "We're looking to look at all of the evidence, all of the facts, and explain to the citizens to the best of our ability what occurred and how it occurred."