In Your Neighborhood

The clear and present danger of lead poisoning

Historic jury verdict finding landlord negligent may spur new wave of legal action

Photo courtesy of Brett Kunzmann

Brett's younger sister, Allison, left, and Rowan, at Hasbro Children's Hospital, after Rowan was diagnosed with lead poisoning at a 49 microgram per deciliter level in her blood, about 10 times the limit recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The lead poisoning has been allegedly linked to high levels of lead in the home where Rowan and her parents live in Coventry.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 8/3/15
The jury verdict in the lead poisoning case in Providence Superior Court, in which a young woman who was poisoned when she was two years old in 1998, received more than $350,000 in damages, was an historic case. But the reality of childhood lead poisoning in Rhode Island hasn’t gone away, as a most recent tragic case in Coventry demonstrates.
What is the responsibility and liability of banks that provide financing to landlords whose tenants are victims of lead poisoning? How can a bank be unaware of a landlord’s alleged negligent practices if that landlord owns more than 100 properties? When will the eradication of the hazards of lead in housing become an urgent health, education and economic priority in Rhode Island? What is the responsibility of the real estate business community to support the elimination of lead in older housing stock in Rhode Island?
In response to a Boston Globe reporter’s question, Skip Schloming, executive director the Cambridge, Mass.-based Small Property Owners Association, said: “I don’t think that there’s any evidence that lead at even 20 micrograms [per deciliter, four times the current health standard], is seriously dangerous.” He added: “For us to spend a lot of time trying to delead apartments when they reach 5 micrograms would be excessive.”
Schloming’s opinion, denying the scientific and medical evidence about the proven, pernicious life-long impact of lead poisoning on children, reflects, unfortunately, the attitude of many in the real estate business.
To change that attitude, it may require more aggressive legal strategies, taking allegedly negligent landlords to task, similar to the policy adopted by Victor Yannacone, an environmental lawyer, who coined the phrase, “Sue the bastards.”

PROVIDENCE – On July 24, a Superior Court jury found a former landlord, Duncan Duff, negligent for the conditions of his former rental property on 71 Magill St. in Pawtucket, which caused a former tenant to be poisoned by lead-based paint.

In what advocates from the Childhood Lead Action Project called an “historic verdict,” the jury awarded Traecine Claiborne, now 19, but just two years old when she was poisoned by residue from lead paint, $120,000 in compensatory damages as well as $5,000 in punitive damages. With interest, the final judgment totaled more than $350,000.

The jury found that Claiborne had been exposed to “dangerous, hazardous and illegal levels of lead-based paint, plaster and materials inside the dwelling,” according the news release from Motley Rice, a Providence-based law firm that represented Clairborne.

The saga began 17 years ago, in 1998, between March and July, when Claiborne, who had lived for four months with her parents at the Magill Street residence, had been tested and found to have elevated blood levels, ranging from 19 micrograms per deciliter to a peak of 51 micrograms per deciliter – five times higher than the level of 10 micrograms per deciliter was considered a concern by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. [The level for lead poisoning has now been lowered to 5 micrograms per deciliter; many advocates have argued that there is no safe level.]

Despite the fact that the lead poisoning occurred more than 17 years ago, the effect on Claiborne has led to lifelong cognitive deficiencies, including brain injuries and IQ loss, according to her lawyers. Those injuries, the lawyers said, are “still evident today and will unfortunately continue for the rest of her life.”

“I commend my mother for doing everything in her power to try to protect me growing up. I know it was heart-breaking for her that she couldn’t protect me from our home and the lead in it,” Claiborne said, after the verdict was announced. “The jury’s verdict is a relief for not only me and my family, but hopefully it can also help prevent children like me from being lead poisoned.”

During the trial, it emerged that Duff had owned more than 100 properties in Pawtucket and Central Falls during the course of his career in buying, renting and selling houses – so many that Duff said he was unable to recall the exact number in court.

Clear and present danger of lead today
While the jury verdict in the Claiborne case was from a case where the lead poisoning occurred 17 years ago, the reality is that the threat from lead poisoning to children in Rhode Island is an ongoing, tragic reality.

The current situation of a young couple living in rural Coventry, and the poisoning of their 16-month-old daughter, who ended up being hospitalized for more than a week in July after being diagnosed with blood lead levels of 49 micrograms per deciliter, has eerie parallels to the Claiborne case.

Brett Kunzmann and Aimie Jordan have a 16-month-old daughter, Rowan. In early May, Rowan had her routine lead screening performed by her pediatrician, who found that blood lead levels was 8 micrograms per deciliter. The pediatrician gave Rowan’s parents a recommendation, dated Friday, May 8, informing the landlords that the house needed to be tested for lead.

Kunzmann and Jordan, in turn, gave the notice to the landlords that weekend. At that time, according to Kunzmann, the landlords claimed that their apartment, part of a series of mill houses originally constructed in 1843, had allegedly been inspected and had allegedly been given a lead-safe certificate.

Over the next few weeks, according to Kunzmann, the landlords kept promising to provide the couple with the lead certificates, and that they would have their own contractor do lead-testing, neither of which has ever happened, according to Kunzmann.

The landlords also suggested that Kunzmann could look around and sand, scrape and paint any places himself; Kunzmann declined, saying he was uncomfortable doing any kind of the work himself, based upon what he had learned about the strict guidelines and hours of training required to remove lead in a home with children under six.

At that point, the landlords said that because the doctor’s recommendation from May 8 was not official, they would wait until they received something official before they acted.

In response, Kunzmann contacted Rowan’s doctor, who put Kunzmann in contact with the West Bay Lead Center. West Bay Lead Center came to the apartment the first week in June and did both a dust and stick test for the presence of lead; the tests found that there was lead in the house, and a lot of it, according to Kunzmann.

Kunzmann notified the landlords about the results of the tests that had found the lead in the home, but the landlords still did not take any action to hire a certified contractor to eliminate any potential sources of lead, according to Kunzmann.

Rowan, who was being closely monitored because of her previous high lead blood levels, was tested again. This time she had a blood lead level of 49 micrograms per deciliter, and on the urgent recommendation of the doctor, she was taken to Hasbro Children’s Hospital on July 4 for chelation therapy.

The R.I. Department of Health was notified and in response, came to the couple’s home to do a more advanced form of testing to identify lead. The resulting agency inspection led to the couple’s landlords receiving a notice of violation as well as an in-depth review of where the lead hazards were in the apartment and how to correct these hazards, according to Kunzmann.

The couple has retained legal counsel, Vincent L. Greene, with Motley Rice, which handled the Claiborne case.

“All we ever wanted was to have a safe place we call home for our daughter,” Kunzmann told ConvergenceRI. “Lead poisoning is still happening today. Why is nothing getting done?”

Kunzmann said that there were striking similarities between what happened to his daughter and the Claiborne case. At the same time, he drew some distinctions. “A lot of the lead [paint contamination] is found in inner city neighborhoods,” he said. “But, we’re not living in an inner city neighborhood; we’re about as country as Rhode Island gets. The neighbor down the street keeps cows.”

Lessons learned
Laura Brion, community organizer with the Childhood Lead Action Project, hoped that the verdict in the Claiborne case would serve to put local landlords on notice. “Landlords who violate both the basic moral responsibility to provide their tenants with a safe environment as well as the laws,” Brion said, “are playing a game that they are more and more likely to lose.”

Further, Brion hoped that the victory in the Claiborne case would encourage other tenants to take action, to assert their right to safe housing.

“This may be the only lawsuit of its kind in recent memory, where there has been a public trial, and where the landlord has been held accountable,” Brion told ConvergenceRI. Most disputes over lead poisoning are settled out of court.

When asked about the attitude, expressed by some, that lead poisoning was no longer a problem, because of the apparent decline in the numbers of new cases in lead poisoning each year in Rhode Island, from some 6,000 in 2002 to about 1,000 in 2013, Brion responded with anger in her voice.

“Lead poisoning is not something you get and then get over; it’s with you for life,” she said, explaining that while the decline in numbers of new cases was a positive sign, the effects of lead poisoning were cumulative, and for many of those 6,000 children who were poisoned by lead in 2002, the detrimental effects will stay with them throughout their life. “The goal should be prevention and elimination of lead as a hazard.

Further, Brion said she was shocked by the revelations that Duff, as a landlord, had held so much power over tenants’ lives but had been under the radar. “He couldn’t remember the exact number of properties he had owned, when asked about it in court,” she said. “He said he owned more than 100 properties during the course of his career.”

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