A recent decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals highlights important deadlines that apply when pursuing litigation against local governments. This decision demonstrates why it is so important to contact an attorney as soon as possible after an injury.
The recent Court of Appeals opinion made rulings on two distinct but related lead poisoning cases. In one case, the plaintiff alleged that she was exposed to lead paint in a residence owned by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City in the early 1990s. The plaintiff, who was three years old at the time, had lead levels in her blood that were high enough to require frequent testing. Because of her alleged exposure to lead paint, the plaintiff sued the Housing Authority in 2010 for negligence and for violating the Maryland Consumer Protection Act.
When filing a lawsuit against a local government seeking unliquidated damages (damages that are not predefined by law – often pain and suffering), Maryland law requires that plaintiffs notify the local government of the claim 180 days after the injury. The notice must be in writing and has to specify time, place, and cause of the injury.
Although its best practice to comply precisely with the letter of the law, Maryland’s Local Government Tort Claims Act gives some slight leeway to plaintiffs who were clearly attempting to notify the local government of a claim. Under Maryland law, the Court may say that a plaintiff “substantially complied” where he or she:
- Made an effort to provide the required notice,
- Actually provides some kind of notice, and
- This notice provides notice of the facts and circumstances that create the plaintiff’s claim.
Note that this workaround rule is still pretty strict. In the case at hand, the Court of Appeals ruled that the plaintiff did not give adequate notice when she did not file a complaint with the Housing Authority about lead paint. The Housing Authority had a 1992 letter from the plaintiff’s doctor stating that she had elevated levels of lead in her blood, but it was not enough to put the Housing Authority on notice that there was a problem with lead paint in its residential housing.
The second plaintiff’s mother had threatened to sue the Housing Authority if it did not repair chipping paint after the plaintiff was allegedly seen putting chipped paint when she was three years old. In 2000, the Kennedy Krieger Institute informed the second plaintiff’s mother that her child suffered from elevated levels of lead in her blood. In 2011, the second plaintiff sued the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.
The Court of Appeals held that even though the second plaintiff’s mother complained about chipping paint and threatened to sue the Housing Authority, this was not enough to legally notify the Housing Authority of a potential legal claim. The Court of Appeals further held that even though the Housing Authority of Baltimore City had a legal duty to inspect properties for deteriorating lead paint, the plaintiffs still had a duty to comply with the notice requirements of the Maryland Local Tort Claims Act. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals denied the plaintiffs’ arguments and affirmed the Circuit Court’s judgment in favor of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.
Although the two plaintiffs in these cases may have had legitimate claims and very real injuries, they were not compensated for any damages and were not able to hold any wrongdoers accountable because they did not comply with Maryland’s strict law governing lawsuits against local government entities. Keep in mind that the Housing Authority of Baltimore City is deemed a “local government” under the law.
At The Cochran Firm, D.C., we think everyone who has been seriously injured deserves their day in court and the chance to seek justice. This case illustrates the absolute importance of consulting with a knowledgeable injury attorney as soon as possible after your injury. An experienced Maryland injury lawyer could have informed the plaintiffs that they only had 180 days to file a notice in order to preserve their claim and could have helped them plan an effective litigation strategy.
The cases decided by the Maryland Court of Appeals were Ellis v. Housing Authority of Baltimore City, No. 16; Johnson v. Housing Authority of Baltimore City, Sept. Term, 2013 (filed Nov. 26, 2013) (Judges Barbera, Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, and Watts).