After being awarded $1.3 million in a lead paint lawsuit, Daronda and Chauncey Liles worry it won't be covered. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun video)
Chauncey Liles Jr. was poisoned by lead paint by the time he was 2 years old. Now 18, he says he's struggled ever since.
He has trouble concentrating. Academic concepts came quickly to other students, he says, but he always had a hard time keeping up. The lead paint chips in the rental property where Liles lived cost him valuable IQ points, his lawyer argued in a successful lawsuit against the landlord.
"I feel like I'm different and it's not fair," Liles says.
Now Liles, of West Baltimore, faces another challenge. The $1.3 million a jury awarded his family last week is in jeopardy because of a legal dispute between a London-based insurance company and Liles' former landlord.
The case is one of two large lead poisoning judgments awarded this month in lawsuits filed against landlords who are insured by London-based CX Reinsurance Co., which is attempting to rescind its insurance policies with landlords of hundreds of Baltimore properties. The other — a $1.6 million judgment for an East Baltimore teen diagnosed with even higher lead levels in his youth — also is in question.
CX Reinsurance Co. has filed 15 lawsuits in federal court over the past two years seeking to rescind the insurance policies of landlords who are accused of exposing their tenants to poisonous lead chips and dust.
Area lawyers say the company's actions could put the cases of at least 100 families in jeopardy because smaller landlords typically don't have enough cash or assets to cover damages awarded to families in lead-poisoning lawsuits.
The Law Offices of Peter T. Nicholl, a firm that represents many lead-poisoned clients, has filed a complaint with the Maryland Insurance Administration accusing the company of committing "fraud" to avoid paying potential judgments. State officials said they are continuing an "active investigation."
The insurance company "categorically rejects the allegations," said Ed Ruberry, a lawyer for CX Reinsurance. He said the company stands by its allegations that Baltimore-area landlords fraudulently failed to disclose lead violations when purchasing insurance policies decades ago.
CX Reinsurance said in its court filings that many of the insurance policy applications were signed by Alfred Murray Slattery, an insurance agent who pleaded guilty to fraud in 2003. He admitted he had swindled more than $1.5 million from various companies and created fake insurance policies.
"It's a horrible situation for a lot of people. I assure you, there is no fraud," he said. "They've had these policies since 1997 but had a revelation in 2015 that there was fraud? Every policy premium was paid. Everything was legit."
In a letter to the Maryland Insurance Administration, Ruberry wrote that the complaint filed against the insurance company by the Peter T. Nicholl firm is "wildly irresponsible." Ruberry wrote that the motive behind the complaint — which also was sent to state and federal prosecutors and The Baltimore Sun — is likely "intimidating CX Re, tarnishing its reputation in the community, and influencing ongoing legal proceedings."
Lawyer Robert Leonard, who represents Liles, said it could be years before Liles sees a dime of the money his family is owed.
"We told Chauncey, 'Hang in there, be patient,'" Leonard said. "We're going to fight this battle. It might take years, but we're going to put up our best fight.
Liles' lawsuit named as a defendant landlord Stanley Sugarman. A World War II veteran and former PTA president at Northwestern High School, Sugarman, 90, said he paid for his insurance policy decades ago and is a "nervous wreck" that the insurance company will back out of paying the judgment.
He said he believes many landlords have chosen to let their properties go vacant rather than worry about defending lead poisoning lawsuits.
"I've tried to run a real good business for 55 years in Baltimore," he said. "All of a sudden these lead paint issues arise. It's just a mess. It's horrible. I would venture to say that thousands of vacant houses are due to lead paint. ... I never dreamed 20 years ago that I would be dealing with these problems."
Liles lived with his family in the first block of S. Payson St. from his birth in February 1998 to August 2003.
In August 2000, he was tested and found to have a lead level of 11 micrograms per deciliter — above Maryland's legal threshold for lead poisoning of 10 micrograms per deciliter. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there's no safe level of lead exposure and urges health care providers to follow up on any young child with a level as low as 5 micrograms. Lead poisoning often causes lasting learning and behavioral problems.
Liles' blood lead level remained elevated when he was tested again in July 2001 and found to have a blood lead level of 10 micrograms per deciliter. Liles' mother and father say the home contained flaking and chipping paint. Family photos show deteriorated paint conditions in the home when Liles was a toddler.
The landlord "didn't even contest there was chipping paint in the house," Leonard said.
Lawyers for Sugarman instead argued that Liles didn't suffer significantly from the lead poisoning. He achieved passing grades, graduated from City College and will attend Bowie State University in the fall.
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Liles said arguments like that didn't taken into account how much he still struggles to keep up with his peers. His mother, Daronda Liles, 44, said she's seen the impact of lead on her son firsthand.
"He should receive his money," she said. "He's been living with this problem for a long time. It showed through his grades and his concentration. They didn't have to live with him going through those changes, I did. Growing up, it really stressed me out and had me depressed because I knew what my child was going through. He has to live with the fact that they caused this."