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$150,000 Awarded in Case of Lead Poisoning : Health: In the first state court judgment on the issue, a Pomona jury says it’s the landlord’s responsibility to remove hazardous paint.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the first California court judgment on the issue of a landlord’s responsibility for removing poisonous lead paint, a jury awarded $150,000 Thursday to an El Monte couple whose baby daughter was exposed to lead from old, flaking paint in a poorly maintained apartment.

Attorneys for the couple said the unprecedented jury award in Pomona Superior Court would encourage California tenants to take legal action if landlords refuse to clean up lead paint problems. Previous lawsuits led to out-of-court settlements.

“Landlords had better beware,” said Mark Ravis, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Josefina and Jorge Morales. “The landlord has a duty to provide a safe, habitable dwelling. If he breaches that duty, then he is liable.”

Larry Robinson, an attorney who represented landlords Patrick and Rita Quan, declined to comment Thursday.

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Unlike the East Coast, where lead-paint poisoning lawsuits are more common and have ended in judgments against landlords ranging from $5,000 to $7 million, California and the West Coast have seen few such cases. But federal health officials estimate that more than 580,000 California children under age 6 live in older housing likely to contain paint with heavy concentrations of lead.

Juan Dominguez, Ravis’ co-counsel, said the Morales case will help educate landlords and the public to the risks from such old paint.

The El Monte couple sought legal help after they discovered in August, 1992, that their 1-year-old daughter had a high level of lead in her blood: 34 micrograms per deciliter. Blood lead levels higher than 40 micrograms per deciliter were considered dangerous in the past, but the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now considers unsafe any level higher than 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood--a ratio similar to an eyedropper of liquid in a gallon.

Lead poisoning often has no symptoms at first but can later cause mental retardation, learning disabilities, impaired growth and hearing loss. No treatment exists except to purge the lead over time with lessened exposure and a good diet.

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Los Angeles County Health Department officials, who are required to investigate cases of lead exposure in children, examined the Morales apartment on Elliot Avenue. They ordered the landlords to make repairs after finding high levels of lead in the chipped brown paint on a windowsill next to the family’s kitchen table and on the apartment’s bathroom door.

After the Quans replaced the sill and the door, the lead level in the Morales child’s blood dropped to 20 micrograms per deciliter. The family has asked that her full name not be published.

But some experts believe children younger than 3 years can be harmed even by exposure to relatively low levels. Pediatrician Harvey Karp, who testified in the Morales lawsuit, estimated that the couple’s daughter had probably lost from 9 to 20 IQ points.

Jurors said Thursday that they tried to find an amount that would compensate the child for future difficulties she may face as a result of a lowered IQ.

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Jurors said they were astonished that the Quans repaired only the Morales apartment, as required by the county, but left 17 other units in the complex in similar condition with the same paint for up to two years after the county had informed them of the hazards.

“I would think this would make landlords sit up and take notice, even though it wasn’t a very big award,” said juror Virginia Angel, a retired schoolteacher from Claremont.

Robert Wendoll, a spokesman for the paint industry, agreed.

But Wendoll, who serves as chairman of EL RAP, the Environmental Legislative & Regulatory Advocacy Program of the Southern California Paint & Coatings Assn., cautioned that not all old paint is equally hazardous.

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The most hazardous paint is that containing up to 50% lead as a pigment, used primarily to paint housing built before World War II. After that, lead was used primarily as a drying agent in concentrations of less than 0.5%. It was eliminated altogether by 1978, he said. As a result, Wendoll said, the actual hazard to residents may be extremely small.

But Ellen Widess of Lead Safe California said that although the greatest concentration does exist in pre-1950s housing, small children may still be at risk at lower concentrations of lead than adults.

“It is an important wake-up call,” Widess said of the case.


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