Baltimore's public housing agency announced Monday it has paid $3.7 million to a former public housing resident who suffered lead-paint poisoning as a young child in the 1980s.
The insurance payment to plaintiff Markeath Justice, now 29, marks the biggest step by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City to satisfy millions of dollars in lead-paint judgments that have gone unpaid in recent years.
"This has been a long, hard road to say the least, and we are glad to find some level of resolution for what this plaintiff has suffered," Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said in a statement. "HABC will continue to work hard to resolve lead paint judgments in a fair and responsible way while protecting public funds needed for the thousands of vulnerable low-income housing families."
The authority's inability or unwillingness to pay most of the judgments has generated sharp rebukes from some lawmakers and become a political headache for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has pledged to work toward a resolution.
Monday's announcement did little to quell the criticism. "It addresses this one plaintiff's problem," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat. "It doesn't address the larger problem. They still need a resolution of the other unpaid judgments."
The housing agency says it has now paid $4.6 million to satisfy, partly or fully, four lead-paint judgments. Even small amounts of lead can cause permanent brain damage in children who ingest lead chips or lead dust, resulting in learning and behavioral problems.
The payout announced Monday does not cover the entire $5.75 million judgment awarded to Justice, who now lives in New Jersey and works at a shoe store, according to his lawyer. Agency spokeswoman Cheron Porter called it an "interim" payment and said officials were seeking more.
In addition to the remaining $2.1 million still owed Justice, $2.5 million in interest has accumulated since the jury's award in 2008, said his attorney, Brian S. Brown.
"I'm gratified that one client was able to obtain a portion of the verdict which was obtained on his behalf in court," Brown said. "On the other hand, I'm extremely disappointed and frustrated that the housing authority is not living up to its agreed-upon obligation to pay not only this judgment but the consent judgments that are still outstanding."
Brown represents five other clients owed between $250,000 and $500,000 apiece under consent judgments, in which the housing authority agreed to a dollar figure but did not pay it.
All told, eight court-ordered judgments against the housing authority remain unpaid, with two under appeal. The total dollar figure for the eight exceeds $3.5 million, not counting what is owed Justice.
In addition, the housing authority faces more than 200 pending claims that it says could carry a potential cost of $900 million, a figure that plaintiffs' lawyers call an extreme exaggeration.
In January, the housing authority scored a legal victory when the Court of Special Appeals, the state's second-highest court, overturned a $2.6 million jury award to a brother and sister who contend they were poisoned by lead in the early 1990s.
Graziano has said current and potential judgments together could bankrupt the housing authority, which is the nation's fifth-largest and provides housing services to 25,000 low-income households.
He also has said the agency cannot pay lead-poisoning victims without federal approval because its funding comes largely from the federal government. Because the payout announced Monday used no federal money, it did not require a green light from Washington.
Brown said the availability of insurance money in the Justice case contradicts the housing authority's claim that it could not obtain insurance coverage for lead-paint liability. The agency let its coverage lapse in the mid-1990s, and it has no insurance for the other unpaid judgments.
In detailing the payout for Justice, the housing authority said it had a general liability insurance policy with Integrity Insurance Co. from 1981 through 1985. The policy covered lead-paint claims for exposure that occurred in that time period.
In 1987, a New Jersey court declared Integrity insolvent, according to the housing authority. "For several years, HABC aggressively pursued a claim against Integrity Insurance to honor its policy coverage," the agency said in its news release. "We are seeking additional funds from a final distribution by the liquidator," Porter said.
Although numerous lead-paint lawsuits were filed in the last several years, Graziano, city housing commissioner since 2000, said they involve events that predate Maryland's lead-poisoning-prevention law, which took effect in 1996. The housing authority said it has fully complied with the law and provides lead-safe housing.
Justice's exposure to lead paint occurred in the mid-1980s, Brown said, and he cannot read. Blood tests done in 1985, when Justice was younger than 2, showed lead readings above 30 micrograms per deciliter — a "really high" level, according to Ruth Ann North, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning.
She called the housing authority's payment to him "a step in the right direction," adding that officials "certainly should be aggressively pursuing strategies to pay claims for which they are responsible."
The payout is a reminder of the cost, human and financial, of lead-paint poisoning, she said. "If you prevent it, the upside is enormous. If you don't, the downside is pretty deep — for everybody."