Friday, July 31, 2015

Landlord to Pay Rhode Island Tenant $350,000+ for Lead Poisoning

Historic verdict highlights dangers of lead

Originally released by the Childhood Lead Action Project, July 2015.  Contact: Laura Brion, (401) 785-1310, ext. 205.

Lead poisoning lawsuit leads to historic verdict

In a historic verdict announced last Friday, a Providence jury found Florida-based landlord Duncan Duff guilty of negligence in the 1998 lead poisoning of two-year-old Traecina Claiborne, now age 19. After a nearly two-week trial, the jury not only ordered Mr. Duff to compensate Ms. Claiborne for the pain and suffering caused by his failure to protect her from lead hazards at her Pawtucket apartment, but also imposed punitive damages in recognition of his reckless conduct. Including interest, the judgment comes to more than $350,000. This significant individual victory also has the potential to benefit the community as a whole, by inspiring other parents and tenants to take similar action, and by motivating landlords to comply with housing safety laws.

This strong verdict from the jury should serve to put local landlords on notice. Although the "profit over people" strategy of property management is sadly alive and well, victories like this show that the community is unwilling to allow exploitation and greed to win every time. Landlords who violate both the basic moral responsibility to provide their tenants with a safe environment as well as the laws that spell that concept out in specific detail are playing a game that they are more and more likely to lose.

We also hope that Ms. Claiborne's victory will encourage other tenants to take action - to assert their right to safe housing both individually and collectively, and to keep fighting to address the root causes of lead poisoning long-term. The Childhood Lead Action Project's members and staff know from personal experience how hard it can be to find the time and energy to stand up for your rights. We commend Traecina and her mother Wendy for their bravery and persistence in seeking justice through the courts, and for the inspiring example they set for all of us.

We heard many familiar echoes in Ms. Claiborne's testimony about how lead has affected her life. Sadly, her experiences exemplify the ugly reality that much of the decades-long burden of this preventable disease has been suffered by low-income families and people of color, perpetuated by existing wealth disparities and made worse by the disempowering forces of racism and and sexism. During the trial, we learned that Mr. Duff owned more than 100 properties in Pawtucket and Central Falls over the course of a career of buying, renting, and selling houses - so many that he was unable to recall the exact number in court. Years before Ms. Claiborne moved into the home where her blood lead level reached a shocking 51 mcg/dL, Mr. Duff had conducted step-by-step work to abate lead hazards at another rental property, guided by a comprehensive lead inspection and compliance monitoring process conducted by the Health Department. It is hard to imagine what other information or training could have been necessary to prepare or motivate him to protect future tenants from lead hazards. It appears to have simply been Mr. Duff's choice to ignore the facts, the law, and his own experiences.

Traecina Claiborne's victory is historic. Although settlements in similar cases are common, this is the only lead poisoning personal injury case we know of that has had a public trial in Rhode Island in the last two decades, if not longer. However, it is equally important to recognize that the legal system was not able to truly provide Traecina with justice. There is nothing the court can do to fix her cognitive impairments and eliminate the challenges she lives with every day. Likewise, this case serves as a reminder that justice for our community as a whole also requires looking beyond the current limitations of the law. It is painfully clear that the pervasive, dysfunctional dynamics of poverty, racism, and sexism will continue to poison more children like Traecina Claiborne until these systems are stopped. Despite the uphill battle ahead, when families like the Claibornes fight back and demand public accountability from those responsible their suffering, they make the longer-term fight to achieve a better society seem both more possible - and more urgent.
To read more, visit Motley Rice.

Landlords - avoid EPA fines! Stock up on the "Protect Your Family From Lead" pamphlets and disclosure forms to comply with the EPA Lead-based Paint Disclosure Rule.