Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Jackson v. Dackman (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed: October 24, 2011
Opinion by: Judge John C. Eldridge

Held: Immunity provisions of the Reduction of Lead Risk in Housing Act which, under specific conditions, grant immunity to a rental property owner from personal liability suits arising from lead paint poising, are invalid under Article 19 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights.

Facts: The case involves two rental properties, which were owned and maintained by defendants. In January 2007, plaintiff and her daughter moved into the first property when the daughter was one year old. When the lease was first executed, the tenants failed to note any defective conditions. Nevertheless, paint chipped and flaked throughout the apartment, which plaintiff’s daughter ingested, causing her to suffer from lead poising. In February 1999, plaintiff and her daughter moved to the second property, which had been inspected pursuant to the Reduction of Lead Risk in Housing Act and represented as lead-free. However, similar to the first property, paint chipped and flaked throughout the apartment, which the daughter again ingested. Plaintiff brought suit against the defendants and sought damages based on her daughter’s severe and permanent brain injuries allegedly resulting from ingestion of lead-based paint.

Analysis: Section 6-828 of The Reduction of Lead Risk in Housing Act grants immunity from personal injury suits to a rental owner who has complied with the statute, unless notice is given to the owner and the owner has been given the opportunity to make a qualified offer to the person at risk or to a parent or legal guardian of a minor. The statute sets forth specific blood-lead levels at which the tenants are required to give notice to rental owners. The Act also caps the maximum amount payable under a qualified offer to $17,000, which includes medical and relocation expenses. The Act provides that acceptance of a qualified offer releases the owner from all potential liability. It further states that if the qualified offer is rejected “[a]n owner of an affected property is not liable, for alleged injury or loss caused by ingestion of lead by a person at risk in the affected property.”

An issue presented to the court focused on whether the immunity provisions in the Act were invalid under Article 19 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. Article 19 establishes the right to a remedy for a person who experiences an injury to person or property. The Court explained that the remedy may be found at common law, or substituted by the legislature through statute. The general inquiry, under Article 19 jurisprudence, “is whether the abolition of the common law remedy and substitution of a statutory remedy is reasonable.” Article 19 permits the legislature to impose a reasonable limit upon non-economic damages recoverable in tort cases. The Court, while reaffirming that some restrictions upon judicial remedies have been upheld -- including certain well-established immunities, ultimately held the immunity provisions of the Act to be unreasonable.

The immunity granted by the Act was not a well-established immunity in personal injury actions because it did not exist prior to the enactment of the statute in 1994. Under the Act, the only remedy offered in substitution for a personal injury action is a qualified offer by the owners which is accepted by a “person at risk, or a parent or legal guardian of a minor who is a person at risk.” The Court noted that the statute did not provide a remedy where no qualified offer was made. In addition, under the statute, the maximum compensation that may be offered is $17,000, which the Court deemed “minuscule” for a child who is found to be permanently brain damaged. Thus, the Court reasoned, “the remedy which the Act substitutes for a traditional personal injury action results in either no compensation (where no qualified offer is made or where a qualified offer is rejected) or drastically inadequate compensation (where such qualified offer is made and accepted).”

Furthermore, the Act has no exception to the owner’s immunity in the situation where an injured child reaches the age of majority and attempts to bring, in his or her own name, a personal injury action against the owner. The Court held, that because no adequate remedy was substituted for the grant of immunity, the immunity provisions of the Act were unreasonable and therefore invalid under Article 19. However, the Court found that the invalid provisions were severable from the rest of the statute, ultimately upholding the Act.

The full opinion is available in pdf

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