Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Maryland High Court Finds Good Cause To Excuse Lack of Notice To The Housing Authority of Baltimore City In Lead Paint Case

A $690,000.00 lead-paint verdict was at stake in Maryland’s high court in the Hous. Auth. of Balt. City v. Woodland case. Hous. Auth. of Balt. City v. Woodland, 2014 Md. LEXIS 162 (2014). In a reported opinion authored by Judge Sally D. Adkins, the Court of Appeals of Maryland held that Amafica Woodland’s mother and grandmother had good cause for not substantially complying with the 180-day deadline in the Local Government Tort Claims Act (“LGTCA”) to notify the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (“HABC”) of their claim for damages. Id. at 6-7. The LGTCA, outlined in section 5-304 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article of the Maryland Code, states that an action for damages cannot be brought against a local government entity unless notice of the claim is given within 180 days after the injury. Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-304(b). The notice must be in writing and include the time, place, and cause of the injury. Id.

Amafica Woodland (“Woodland”) lived at 127 Albemarle Street (“the Residence”) with her mother, Tanderlara Monterio (“Monterio”), and her maternal grandmother, Dale Williams (“Williams”) from 1995, when she was born, until November of 1997. Woodland, at 1-2. The Residence was owned and managed by the HABC. Id.  In the Fall of 1997, Woodland had her blood tested twice for lead and received readings of 13 and 11 milligrams per decileter, at a time when 10 was considered an elevated blood level. Id. at 2-3. Following the testing, Williams and Monterior met with Robin Mack (“Mack”), a property manager for the HABC. Id. At the meeting, Mack had Monterior complete a lead questionnaire and gave her an informational booklet on lead. Id. at 3. The meeting was also recorded in a “Summary of Interviews,” and Mack subsequently requested lead testing of the home. Id. Tests were conducted at the property in October of 1997, where chipping paint was noted throughout the house. Id. at 3-4. Following the testing, the HABC quickly relocated the family. Id. at 4.

Woodland’s family filed suit against the HABC in April of 2009, alleging that the conditions of the home led to Woodland’s ultimate lead poisoning and related cognitive impairment. Id. The HABC filed a motion for summary judgment alleging that the family failed to comply with the 180-day notice requirement in the Local Government Tort Claims Act, and that there was no good cause for the failure to comply. Id. Judge Pamela J. White of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City ultimately denied HABC’s motion, finding that the family had substantially complied with the notice requirements. Id. at 4-5. At trial, the jury entered a verdict in favor of Woodland, along with a judgment that ultimately amounted to $690,000.00 after the statutory non-economic damages caps were applied. Id. at 5. The Court of Appeals granted certiorari, superseding the Court of Special Appeals. Id.

The Court upheld the trial court’s ruling; however, it did so on slightly different terms. The Court disagreed with the trial court and held that a simple meeting with the HABC property manager absent an “explicit or implicit threat of legal action,” or some other written notice, did not constitute substantial compliance. Id. at 13-14 (citing Ellis v. Hous. Auth. of Balt. City, 436 Md. 331, 82 A.3d 161 (2013) (stating that even a verbal complaint of chipping paint coupled with a threat to sue did not qualify as substantial compliance with the LGTCA)). Turning next to the “good cause” exemption, the Court held that the meeting in person with Mack about the lead tests, coupled with the subsequent investigation and ultimate housing transfer, was enough for the family to reasonably believe that they had put the HABC on notice of their claims. Id. at 23-24, 29-30.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals’ decision in Woodland allows for a broader interpretation of the good cause exception to the notice requirement in the LGTCA, which will weaken motions for summary judgment filed by government entities in future cases. Additionally, the Court’s decision will ultimately allow for many others to claim ignorance when found in violation of the notice requirements, putting the pressure on government agencies and local governments to thoroughly investigate every potential claim in a timely manner.  

Article contributed by Catherine A.B. Simanski

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