Lawmakers differ over lead poisoning bill

Legislation that would expand Maryland's efforts to curb childhood lead poisoning remains in limbo, as House and Senate members strive to settle their differences over whether to give landlords who follow state law any legal protection against lawsuits from poisoning victims.

HB644, which passed the House, would expand state regulation of rental housing with lead paint in it to cover units built between 1950 and 1978.  The original 1994 law covers rental homes built before 1950. 

The bill also would authorize the state to regulate renovation, repair and painting of all homes containing lead-based paint, which if improperly done can generate toxic dust that could cause brain damage to infants and toddlers.

House and Senate differed mainly over how to respond to the flurry of lawsuits against landlords, primarily in Baltimore.  The House-passed bill said property owners who comply with state regulations on reducing lead paint risks would be presumed in any litigation to have exercised reasonable care, unless an injured child could show by a "preponderance of evidence" that was not so. The Senate has sought to balance that by adding a provision that failure to follow state lead-paint rules also could be introduced in court as evidence of a landlord's lack of reasonable care.

Another measure, HB472, introduced by Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore city, that would have set up a state-run fund to compensate victims of lead poisoning failed to gain traction, as plaintiffs lawyers and some landlords objected.  The bill passed last week after it was revamped to call simply for a state study of how to deal with the inability of landlords in Baltimore and elsewhere to get insurance against lead-paint lawsuits. 

The measure was prompted by a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling last year overturning a $17,000 cap on payments to victims of lead poisoning in rental homes in compliance with state lead-paint regulations.  Landlords contend without insurance or some legal shield from damage awards they'll be forced to shutter their properties, depriving low-income families of affordable housing.  Children's advocates, though, have countered that no other state provides such legal protections or compensation schemes for landlords with older housing.

A clutch of other bills dealing with lead poisoning and litigation over it fell by the wayside, including one House-passed measure that would have required alleged poisoning victims to have their cases approved by a "qualified expert" before they could proceed in court. 

That bill got an unvaforable vote in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.  The panel's chairman, Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, said there were too many questions and concerns about revamping legal proceedings that way. 

Instead, in response to landlords complaints about being hit with so-called "frivolous" lawsuits from plaintiffs who never lived in their properties, Frosh said senators had proposed adding to HB644 a provision intended to make it easier for litigants to collect legal expenses from any one who alleges or denies a claim without a "good faith basis."



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