Baltimore housing authority at risk from lead claims

Since 2004 the Housing Authority of Baltimore City has been sued in 327 cases relating to poisoning of residents from lead paint used in the Authority’s homes. These cases relate to lead exposure in HABC homes that occurred prior to 1996. This week HABC announced that it had made the largest payment ever, $3.675 million, in compliance with a judgement on just one of those cases. HABC estimates that settlement of all of the current cases may leave it with a bill totaling $900 million, an amount that will be more than problematic given the Authority’s annual budget of about $300 million. New cases may still be filed.

The situation in HABC housing may be unique in the US. The Authority claims that other housing authorities have not experienced either the high volume of cases or the large size of the judgments. The issues are certainly complex, as a search on Google for Baltimore lead paint will illustrate. But even in the context of the budget of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, $43 billion, $900 million is not an insignificant amount of money. HABC has no insurance for these lead paint cases.

The liability facing HABC, which could bankrupt the agency, raises key questions that need discussion in Canada as we continue the move towards greater use of litigation as a tool for resolving environmental disputes. Some will argue that $3.675 million is too much as compensation for one family for harm to health arising from an environmental contaminant. Indeed, the State of Maryland would seem to agree because it tried to cap lead paint settlements at $200,000, However the courts have, according to HABC, not uniformly applied the cap. On the other side, many will argue that those people who need public housing should not be the ones to bear the costs of a government agency’s failure to properly deal with a harmful, and well known by the 1990s, environmental contaminant. They will see this level of court decision for damages to be entirely appropriate.

There is merit in both points of view, though GallonDaily is certainly somewhat inclined to the concept that the cost of society’s environmental sins should not be borne only by a few families.

Canada needs to have these discussions and needs to determine the path that we intend to follow. The issue is relevant not just to lead paint, which hopefully is an issue that is today in significant decline, but also  with respect to risks from such things as toxic contamination, flooding caused by climate change or other human-induced factors, and energy facilities of all kinds that are borne disproportionately by some people who may not even be among the beneficiaries of the activity. Just food for thought.

News of the HABC current payment is at http://www.baltimorehousing.org/wgo_detail.aspx?id=505

A more complete discussion of the lead paint cases facing the Housing Authority of Baltimore City from the HABC perspective is at http://www.baltimorehousing.org/wgo_detail.aspx?id=468

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