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Lead Paint Poisoning
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Virginia Lead-Paint Suit Wins $2 Million Jury Verdict Against Landlords

Apr 11, 2003 | The Virginian-Pilot

A jury ordered landlords this week to pay $2 million to a 7-year-old girl in one of the first lead-poisoning cases to reach trial in Virginia.

The girl suffered the poisoning while living in an Olde Towne apartment as an infant. Jurors learned that she is struggling in school and will need lifelong assistance because of the damage done to her developing mind by lead-based paint.

The money will go into a trust fund for her, said O.L. Gilbert, one of her attorneys.

The girl's father is in prison, and lawyers have lost track of her mother, according to court records. The girl is in foster care and was unaware of the lawsuit, which was orignilly brought on her behalf by her father and mother.

The award was high compared with what many Virginia plaintiffs have received in out-of-court settlements, said Zakia Shabazz, a Richmond woman who runs the national group, United Parents Against Lead.

"It will send a message to landlords to clean up their acts," Shabazz said. "Somebody has to be accountable."

The suit was filed in Portsmouth Circuit Court in 1997. It alleges that landlords Wallace and Florence Rich allowed lead-based paint in their Hampton Place building to chip and peel between 1995 and 1997, when the girl lived there.

They also failed to warn the girl's family about the paint, and their negligence caused the infant to be poisoned, according to the suit.

Joseph M. Young, the Richs' attorney, said in court Tuesday that the building had no lead-based paint problems when the couple purchased it in 1991. They managed the building from another state while the girl's family lived there, and a contractor working on the building spread black dust, he said.

"You'll have to decide who acted reasonably, who didn't act reasonably, who's at fault," Young told the seven-woman jury.

Young could not be reached for comment after the verdict, and efforts to contact the landlords were unsuccessful. In a court filing, they denied being negligent.

Federal law requires that landlords disclose the presence of lead-based paint to tenants. State building codes require that the paint, outlawed in 1978, be covered up. People who remove the paint or renovate buildings where it is present are required to have special licenses from the state.

Children exposed to lead through paint chips and dust can develop nervous system and kidney damage and problems with hearing, behavior and learning, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Between 1994 and 2001, more than 6,000 children in Virginia tested for lead levels higher than the acceptable standard, according to the state Health Department.

In the fall of 1996, while the girl was living in the building, the landlords hired a contractor to strip and paint the stairwell, Young said in court. When Wallace Rich found out the contractor had spread dust around the building, he was alarmed and returned to Portsmouth, his attorney said.

That November, Camille's blood showed lead levels more than five times the state standard, her attorney said Tuesday. She stayed in the hospital for five days while doctors tried to remove what lead they could from her bloodstream, Gilbert said.

Because of the poisoning, the girl has problems with visual perception and motor skills, the lawyer said.

She has failed a grade in school, and she will never be able to perform such tasks as following a map and driving a car, he said. She will need medical monitoring for problems such as hypertension at a cost of up to $5,000 a year for the rest of her life, he said.

"This child's life has been unalterably ruined," Gilbert said.

The girl's father is serving an eight-year prison term for aggravated sexual battery and forcible sodomy. He was listed in the suit and will receive about $4,400 for his daughter's medical expenses.

Jurors were instructed Wednesday to find in favor of the girl if they determined that either the contractor or the landlords were at fault. This meant that the landlords were liable for damage done by the contractor.

The couple can appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Virginia.

Doug Gray of the Virginia Association of Realtors said he hopes the case will remind landlords to follow national and state laws.

"There are a lot of people involved in the protection of people from lead paint," Gray said. "The message of this case is, 'Watch out, you really need to take extra care with regard to these issues.' "

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