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Jury awards $2.1 million in lead paint suit

A Baltimore jury has awarded nearly $2.1 million to a 17-year-old city youth who was allegedly poisoned by lead paint in the 1990s when he was a toddler in an East Baltimore rental home.

The judgment against Elliot Dackman and the estates of Sandra and Bernard Dackman came Friday in Baltimore Circuit Court, at the end of the weeklong trial of a lawsuit brought on behalf of Daquantay Robinson by his mother, Tiesha Robinson.

The jury verdict shows the long-running tide of litigation over the widespread use of lead-based paint in Baltimore's older rental housing has yet to ebb, according to Bruce Powell, the Robinsons' lawyer. Though Maryland lawmakers enacted a law in 1994 meant to protect young tenants from lead-paint risks, Powell said, "Here we are; there are still a lot of cases."

Dozens of cases remain outstanding naming Elliott Dackman as a defendant, for example.

Daquantay Robinson had enough lead in his blood to be considered poisoned for more than 18 months while his family lived in a Darley Park home owned by the Dackman Co., Powell said. According to documents submitted at trial, blood samples taken every six months and analyzed by Johns Hopkins medical laboratories repeatedly revealed what were then considered to be elevated levels of the toxic metal in the toddler.

Sandra Moses, the youth's grandmother, who testified at the trial, said she noticed flaking and chipping paint in the home when the family moved in just before Daquantay was born. She said she called the landlord to complain about it some time later.

"They didn't send anybody out to do any repairs, and I called several times" Moses, 50, recalled.

Subsequent testing after the lawsuit was filed found that while the home has since been substantially renovated, there are still surfaces there with lead paint on them, the family's lawyer said.

Frank F. Daily, who represented the defendants, declined to comment. Circuit Judge Alfred Nance presided over the trial.

Expert witnesses called for the family testified that the youth suffered permanent brain damage as a result of his exposure to lead, leading to learning and behavior problems.

Moses, the youth's grandmother, said he "has a hard time keeping up with the other students" in high school.

"Studies have consistently shown that exposure to lead paint, especially in children under the age of 6, can result in a lifetime of medical expenses and financial instability," Powell said in a statement announcing the verdict. "Although no monetary settlement can replace what has been taken from this child, we do feel vindicated when the responsible landlords are brought to justice in court."

It's unclear how much money will actually go to the plaintiff. The jury awarded $1.27 million in economic damages for lost earnings and $818,000 for pain and suffering, the family's lawyer said, but noneconomic damages are capped under state law at $545,000.

The landlord's insurance company also contends it's only liable for a fraction of the damages because it didn't cover the property the entire time he lived there, Powell said.

"There's going to have to be further litigation to get the victim paid," the Robinsons' lawyer predicted.

The award, coming 15 years or more after the youth's alleged exposure to toxic lead paint, highlights the price people continue to pay for Maryland's gradual, at times halting approach to dealing with the health hazards posed by the paint's widespread use in housing decades ago, said Ruth Ann Norton, president and CEO of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative. The group, formerly known as the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, has advocated for stronger lead-paint laws and regulations for decades.

The Darley Park home had been registered with the Maryland Department of the Environment before the Robinsons moved in, as the law required then for all rental units built before 1950. (That was the year lead-based paint was banned in Baltimore city out of concern for its health effects.) Jay Apperson, a state spokesman, said department records contain certification of "full risk reduction" at the property in 1996 before the Robinsons moved in, also as required.

Apperson could not say how the risk reduction was verified. But Norton said that for many years, the state allowed landlords to get by with a visual inspection to certify that lead-paint hazards had been properly dealt with. The only reliable way to check was to swipe window sills and other surfaces for lead-paint dust so fine it couldn't be seen, she said. Lawmakers began requiring lead dust tests in 2012.

Also, in the late 1990s, health standards had yet to require action in cases like Daquantay's. Since 1991, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had said anyone with blood-lead levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter or higher was considered poisoned. But Maryland health authorities were not expected to contact a poisoned child's family or inspect the home unless the level reached 15 micrograms per deciliter, noted MDE's Apperson. Daquantay's highest blood level was a notch below that threshold.

Since then, the CDC has declared that no amount of lead in blood is safe and lowered its "reference" level to 5 micrograms per deciliter.

"The rates this kid had are no longer considered to be a low-level poisoning," Norton said. "These are high."

With increasingly tighter regulations and stricter enforcement, the number of lead poisoned children in Maryland has declined dramatically since the late 1990s. The state is moving now to regulate lead paint in rental homes built between 1950 and 1978, when the federal government banned its sale for interior use. The state also is looking to enforce federal regulations requiring house painters and home improvement contractors take precautions when working even in owner-occupied homes.

"Over the past decade, there has been an increase in enforcement" of lead-paint laws and regulations, Norton said. "It's just regrettable it took so long to get those things in place for this particular family. One hopes we see less of this as we move forward with stronger enforcement and stronger laws."

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