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Trial Court Erred by Entering Judgment in Favor of Defendants in Lead Paint Personal Injury Case on Basis of Lack of Compensable Injury
Crafton v. Dackman
In a recent lead paint personal injury opinion, Crafton v. Dackman, Maryland Court of Special Appeals, No. 0406 (August 20, 2015) (Unreported), the Maryland Court of Special Appeals held that the trial court erred when it granted Defendants’ Motion for Judgment, on the basis that Plaintiff had no compensable injury. Plaintiff presented evidence that she had lost four (4) IQ points due to lead exposure. Had her IQ been four (4) points higher, then she still would have been classified as mildly mentally retarded. The trial judge reasoned that the loss of four (4) IQ points was not an injury to this Plaintiff because with or without lead exposure, she would still be mildly mentally retarded. The appellate court rejected this reasoning based on two (2) tort law principles: 1) that an injury, no matter how small, can be compensable; and 2) that a tortfeasor takes the Plaintiff as he finds her.
By way of factual background, Plaintiff lived at the Defendants’ Baltimore City property from birth until she was twenty-six (26) months old. Plaintiff’s blood lead levels registered at 6 ug/dL on two (2) occasions while she was living at this property. Plaintiff had academic difficulties through schooling, however, she graduated from high school, and was enrolled in community college. She filed a lead paint personal injury action against Defendants. Defendants’ property was tested for lead paint after the commencement of the litigation, and it tested positive for both interior and exterior lead paint.
At trial, Plaintiff’s psychologist expert, Sandra Hawkins-Heitt, PsyD, testified that Plaintiff’s overall IQ was 62 and that Plaintiff suffered from permanent brain impairment. Plaintiff’s pediatric expert, Arethusa Kirk, M.D., testified that Plaintiff’s lead exposure at Defendants’ property was a substantial cause of Plaintiff’s elevated blood lead levels, which resulted in brain injury. Dr. Kirk opined that Plaintiff lost between two (2) and four (4) IQ points as a result of lead exposure. Plaintiff’s vocational expert, Ms. Amy Gonzales, testified that due to Plaintiff’s cognitive and vocational impairments, Plaintiff was not vocationally competitive among other high school graduates. Ms. Gonzalez presented evidence that Plaintiff made $6,452 less annually than the average high school graduate, and that Plaintiff’s career and earning potential would be improved absent her cognitive deficits.
At the close of Plaintiff’s case-in-chief, Defendants moved for judgment, arguing that Plaintiff failed to present any evidence that she had suffered a compensable injury. The Court denied the Motion, and Defendants’ presented their case. At the close of Defendant’s case, they renewed the Motion for Judgment. The trial court granted the motion. The Court determined that Plaintiff would have still been mentally retarded absent lead exposure. It also ruled that there was no credible evidence presented in the case that anything different would have happened in her life in terms of educational attainment, career prospects, or worklife. In sum, the Court concluded that Plaintiff did not present evidence of a compensable injury or economic damages. Plaintiff appealed. The appellate court concluded that the trial court disregarded the Plaintiff’s evidence and only considered the Defendants’ evidence.
Procedurally, a party is entitled to judgment when, while viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the facts and circumstances only permit one (1) conclusion with regard to the issue presented. If there is any competent evidence, however slight, leading to support Plaintiff’s right to recover, the case should be submitted to the jury and the Motion for Judgment denied.
Defendants argued that Plaintiff failed to prove that her IQ loss resulted in any functional difference for her, and that Plaintiff’s experts provided no basis to say that absent her lead exposure she could have functioned as a high school graduate and beyond. To the Court, the loss of IQ points, while not tangible or physical, is “never desirable,” and in addition to the loss of IQ points, the Court found that Plaintiff’s experts testified that she had numerous cognitive impairments in specific areas, and Dr. Kirk causally linked these impairments to Plaintiff’s lead exposure.
The Court also rejected Defendants’ argument that there was no compensable injury since Plaintiff’s loss of four (4) IQ points still put her IQ in the mentally retarded range. The Court rejected this argument because the Defendant takes the Plaintiff as he finds her. “If the Plaintiff has evidence that she has suffered a compensable injury—and this one does—she has the right to present that evidence to a jury and let it determine the appropriate compensation for that injury.”
The trial court additionally found that Plaintiff had produced no evidence of economic damages. Due to the minimal IQ loss, and because Plaintiff would still be mildly mentally retarded absent IQ loss, there was no indication that her career trajectory was negatively impacted by her injury. The trial court concluded that there was no proof of economic damages, but this was premised on its erroneous ruling on the injury element. Additionally, Defendants argued that despite conceding to the appropriate methodology, Plaintiff’s experts ignored it and simply assumed, with no basis or explained methodology, that absent her lead exposure, Plaintiff would have functioned as a high school graduate and beyond. The Court determined that Ms. Gonzalez’s testimony as to economic harm was not “particularly strong” but there was some evidence that Plaintiff’s lead exposure had caused, and would continue to cause, economic injury. The weight and credibility to give to Ms. Gonzalez’s testimony rested with the jury.
Accordingly, the appellate court reversed the grant of judgment in favor of the Defendants, and remanded the case for a new trial.
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