A city jury awarded more than $2.5 million Tuesday to a pair of siblings who were poisoned by lead-based paint while living in a West Baltimore rowhouse that their mother had been told was "lead safe."
The siblings, Dontae Wallace, 20, and Searra Wallace, 17, have permanent cognitive and behavioral disabilities that stem in part from being exposed to lead paint in the house their family rented from City Homes Inc., a nonprofit organization, for four years in the early 1990s, medical experts said in court.
Tiffini Wallace, the siblings' mother, was 19 when she learned that her 4-year-old son had been exposed to lead in a house the family was renting at the time. She enrolled Dontae in a lead-paint abatement study run by Kennedy Krieger Institute Inc. and moved to the house on Booth Street in an effort to protect her son and daughter from the dangers of an element that for decades was a common ingredient in paint.
Wallace said she was told by City Homes that the house was considered safe.
"I had no idea there was lead in that house," Wallace said. "I would have never moved there if I had known there was lead in that house.
"As the years went by, it seemed that they fell further and further back. No matter how much we helped them or how hard they tried, they kept falling back," Wallace said. "We're not going to be around forever, and they need to be taken care of."
Calls to City Homes and its attorney, David A. Carter, were not returned Tuesday.
Although some steps had been taken to contain lead paint in the Booth Street property, the home posed numerous hazards to small children, according to the testimony of experts who reviewed records about the home. Paint was chipped and flaking on several surfaces, one wall became wet in storms, and holes indicated that rats were gnawing at walls and tracking lead dust, according to testimony.
Attorneys for City Homes described it as a nonprofit organization that aims to "provide safe, affordable housing." The home passed lead inspections before and after the Wallaces' occupancy, and the children's elevated lead levels stemmed from previous exposure, Carter said during closing arguments this week in Baltimore Circuit Court.
Barry Mankowitz, president of City Homes, was responsive to the Wallaces' maintenance requests, Carter said in court. "For every call Mrs. Wallace made to City Homes, there was a corresponding work ticket," he said.
Kennedy Krieger has come under harsh criticism for the lead-abatement study, which the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, in 2001 compared to the notorious Tuskegee syphilis experiment.
The Kennedy Krieger study, led by former Hopkins Associate Professor Mark Farfel, attempted to find more cost-effective measures to remove lead paint, which is believed to be a problem in an estimated 300,000 Baltimore houses. Researchers offered parents incentives to move into houses that had varying levels of lead abatement in order to see whether less-expensive methods of containing lead could protect children. Even small amounts of lead exposure can cause profound developmental problems in children, medical experts say.
Reversing the opinion of a lower court, the Court of Appeals found in 2001 that researchers failed to properly warn families about the risks that living in these homes posed to children.
Kennedy Krieger was initially named as a defendant in the Wallaces' lawsuit, but it was dropped from the lawsuit just before the case came to trial before Judge Pamela White.
Evan K. Thalenberg, the attorney who represented the Wallaces, declined to say why Kennedy Krieger was dropped from the suit. His law firm has several other lead-paint cases pending against Kennedy Krieger and City Homes, according to court records.
A spokeswoman said Kennedy Krieger had not reached a settlement with the family but declined to say why it was dropped from the lawsuit.
Tiffini and Rico Wallace said both their children exhibited problems in school from a young age. After a checkered academic career, Dontae dropped out of school at 16 and has tried and failed to obtain a GED. He is currently not working, his parents said.
Searra Wallace has failed two grades and is now in the 10th grade. She would like to be a cosmetologist, but it is unlikely that she will graduate from high school, according to testimony. Both children have IQs significantly below average.
After three weeks of testimony, the six-person jury found City Homes and Mankowitz guilty of negligence and negligent misrepresentation in the cases of both Dontae and Searra.
Dontae was awarded $1.2 million in lost earnings and Searra was awarded $1.3 million for lost earnings and other damages. Their parents say the money will pay for services to care for the children.
"It's a survival story," said Rico Wallace, noting that he and his wife, who met on a West Baltimore playground, have been together 25 years. "I would tell other families out there to be careful and ask a lot of questions. There are a lot of people out there who will try to put you in harm's way."