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Lead Paint Poisoning
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Md. Court Decides Lead Paint Appeal

Renters Can Sue Housing Agencies

Jan 4, 2001 | Washington Post Maryland's mid-level appeals court ruled in separate cases yesterday that renters poisoned by lead paint have a right to file negligence lawsuits against public housing agencies but cannot sue real estate agents who broker leases for lead-contaminated homes.

The Court of Special Appeals rulings stem from lawsuits filed by parents of minor children in Baltimore, where lead paint contamination has been a vexing problem, particularly in the city's low-income neighborhoods.

The public housing ruling amounted to a rebuke of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. The agency's lawyers had argued that it should have blanket governmental immunity from lawsuits and, furthermore, that it should not be forced to pay judgments in lead paint cases because its insurance coverage for lead cases had been canceled by the insurance carrier.

Those arguments were rejected by Baltimore Circuit Court judges in two cases. In a third case, a Baltimore Circuit judge ruled in favor of the housing authority. In yesterday's appeals court ruling, the three cases were combined by a three-judge panel, which sided with the renters in each instance.

The panel said a dangerous precedent would have been set if the housing authority was allowed to use its lack of insurance coverage to avoid lawsuits.

"If such a practice would be allowed, governmental agencies would be able to manufacture their own immunity simply by allowing their insurance to lapse," wrote Raymond G. Thieme Jr., a retired judge who heard cases because there were vacancies on the court at the time.

Thieme also wrote that state law specifically grants housing authorities the right to "sue or be sued."

The same three-judge panel -- comprising Thieme, James R. Eyler and Peter B. Krauser -- ruled against renters in the case of a Baltimore woman who sued her real estate agent after moving into a lead-contaminated home.

Lawyers for Sheree Dyer sued Otis Warren Real Estate Services, saying her child suffered brain damage after moving into a Baltimore home brokered by the firm. Dyer's lawyers cited the Maryland Lead Paint Act, which requires property owners to take precautionary measures to reduce the risk of lead paint exposure to tenants.

But a Baltimore Circuit Court judge ruled that the Warren firm could not be held liable because it did not own the property. The appeals court panel agreed. Eyler wrote that real estate agents cannot be sued -- even if they know about lead contamination -- unless they also own the property

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