A lead paint study that has dogged the Kennedy Krieger Institute since the 1990s when it was conducted has resulted in the first judgment against the renowned East Baltimore children’s treatment center.
Ashley Partlow was almost 5 in 1994 and too old to be enrolled. She lived with her sister, who was a participant in the study, which aimed to test whether less expensive remedies could prevent harm to children from lead paint widely used in homes before it was banned in 1978.
A jury found this week that she was harmed and that Kennedy Krieger was a factor in the injury. She was awarded just over $1.84 million, though a cap on noneconomic damages will reduce that to $521,000.
“To me, this was an indefensible study,” said Brian Brown of Brown and Barron, Partlow’s attorney in the lawsuit, which was initially filed in 2009 and has been winding through the courts.
Kennedy Krieger “defended it and defended it, and I’m happy that I got a jury to agree,” Brown said. “It’s important to send a message that just because you’re Kennedy Krieger and the big gun over in East Baltimore that you can’t just use kids as measuring tools.”
The study and its researchers have faced criticism — and lawsuits — over time, though some believe it was a well-meaning attempt using what was known at the time to find lower-cost remedies to the insidious problem of lead poisoning, particularly in older housing for the poor where the paint is deteriorating.
“We are examining our options for appeal and still consider this an active case, so we cannot provide further comment," said Lisa Nickerson, a spokeswoman for Kennedy Krieger Institute, in a statement.
That makes it unclear when or if Partlow, now 30, will receive any money.
Brown said she needs it to help make up for lost income. She works as a driver of a van for an adult day care provider and has a child. She earned a high school degree and passed the exam to become a certified nursing assistant, but Brown said she was not able to perform the work because of damage from her lead poisoning.
Lead paint is known to cause irreversible damage to growing brains and can lead to health, learning and behavior problems. Babies and toddlers have increased risk, and can be poisoned by paint chips and dust picked up from the floor.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in 2012 that there is no acceptable level of exposure.
At the time of the study in 1994, however, landlords were balking at the full cost of clearing lead paint, which in some cases could exceed a home’s value. The federally funded Kennedy Krieger study, called the Lead-Based Paint Abatement and Repair and Maintenance Study, enrolled families with children from 6-months- to 4-years-old in more than 100 houses that had been given various levels of abatement. Researchers monitored lead in the children’s blood.
Families have argued since that they were not properly informed of the risks and turned to the courts.
In a blistering 2001 ruling that allowed cases to proceed, the Maryland Court of Appeals found researchers knowingly exposed children to lead without proper warning. The court likened the study to the notorious Tuskegee experiment in Alabama beginning in the 1930s in which treatment was withheld for black men with syphilis so the toll could be documented.
Records have shown that other cases have been settled and still more have been dismissed, including the case from Partlow’s younger sister, Anquenette.
Ashley Partlow initially lost her case but appealed.
In 2009, two siblings won a $2.5 million judgment against a landlord who enrolled participants in the Kennedy Krieger study, but the hospital was dismissed as a defendant before trial. That case was later overturned and then settled for undisclosed terms.
Brown said the case of another child living in the Partlow’s home was resolved, but the terms also were not disclosed.
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Brown said he did not know of other sibling cases pending and said the statute of limitations for bringing a case expires three years after the children turn 18, so new litigation might not be possible.
Those who have worked for new resources and laws to curb lead poisoning said there are a lot of others living with damage from toxic paint and new exposures continue.
Ruth Ann Norton, president and CEO of the Green & Health Homes Initiative, said acceptance that there is no safe level of lead has prompted a lot of change. She believes Partlow’s judgment means that change has reached the court system.
She said lead poisoning cases in Baltimore have dropped 99 percent since the time of the Kennedy Krieger study thanks to aggressive new laws and enforcement in housing.
But more resources, potentially costing billions of dollars, are needed to keep more children from being affected.
According to the Maryland Department of the Environment’s 2018 Childhood Lead Registry Annual Report, 158 children under age 6 were found to have levels of 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. And 712 had levels of 10 or higher, which is when the state orders case management.
“There has been significant progress, but we have to close the deal,” Norton said. “Every child whose brain is disrupted and damaged has a change in their life trajectory. The goal is not another Ashley.”