Maryland landlords face vastly increased liability for tenants’ claims of lead paint injuries, following a recent decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals.  In Jackson v. Dackman Co., the state’s high court invalidated a provision of the Reduction of Lead Risk in Housing Act that previously capped rental property owners’ liability at $17,000 for personal injury claims based on a child’s or pregnant woman’s ingestion of lead.

The Reduction of Lead Risk in Housing Act (the “Act”) requires owners of older rental properties that contain lead-based paint to register their properties with the state and to take certain steps to minimize tenants’ contact with chipping, peeling, or flaking paint within the dwelling.  The Act states that its purpose is “to reduce the incidence of childhood lead poisoning, while maintaining the stock of available affordable rental housing.”  Maryland Code, Environment § 6-802.  As it was enacted, the Act provided that landlords who complied with the statute could be liable for no more than $17,000 for injuries to a child that resulted from exposure to lead in the dwelling.  Under certain circumstances, the landlord would have no liability at all if the tenant had not previously given the landlord notice of the child’s elevated blood lead levels and allowed the landlord the opportunity to offer reimbursement up to the $17,000 cap. 

In Jackson v. Dackman, the mother of ZiTashia Jackson, a minor, brought suit on her daughter’s behalf against the landlords of two Baltimore rental apartments where they had previously lived.  The suit alleged that, before the mother and daughter moved into the rental apartments, the landlords represented to them that the premises were lead free.  Nevertheless, the suit claimed, the daughter ingested lead-based paint chips while living there and became permanently injured. 

The landlord defendants claimed that the Act provided them with immunity from any liability to the plaintiffs because the plaintiffs had never given them notice of the child’s elevated blood lead levels, or given the landlords an opportunity to pay them reimbursement of up to $17,000.  In any event, the landlords argued, they could not be liable for any more than $17,000 under the Act.

The trial court and the Court of Special Appeals agreed with the landlords, finding that there was no liability to the plaintiffs based on the immunity provisions of the Act.  The Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the Act’s limitation on liability violated Article 19 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights and was therefore unconstitutional.

Article 19, entitled “Remedy for injury to person or property,” establishes the right to a remedy for any person who experiences an injury to person or property.  The court held that the immunity provisions of the Act, which limited the recovery for children who were permanently injured by lead exposure to $17,000 or less, was an unreasonable limit on common law remedies for personal injury.  Accordingly, the court found the immunity provision was invalid and unenforceable.

The court next considered whether the invalidated immunity provisions were “severable” from the remaining portions of the Act, meaning that the court could still require the landlords to comply with the Act’s requirements that it did not strike down.  For a provision to be severable, the remainder of the statute must be capable of being executed in accordance with the legislative intent.  The court found that the Act could be enforced without the immunity provision. 

For Maryland landlords, the decision is significant.  Landlords now face far greater exposure to claims by their tenants for lead-based paint-related injuries.  Where damages for such injuries to minors were once capped at $17,000, there is now no limit to the amount a tenant may seek in a personal injury suit against a landlord.