New Trial on Family's Lead Paint Nightmare
(CN) - A couple is entitled to a new trial on claims that their landlord terrified their children by failing to remove lead-paint dust from the home they rented, Maine's highest court ruled.
Paula Bratton and Daniel Hills Sr. began renting a home from Halsey McDonough in 2004. Their children were ages 3 and 1.
Soon after, the children tested positive for high levels of lead. Bratton conducted a home test that found lead in the paint on the property.
McDonough disagreed with her findings, telling her that the lead was coming from diesel trucks on a nearby highway.
Bratton and Hills' third child was born in 2006 and also tested positive for elevated blood lead levels in 2008.
The Department of Health and Human Services inspected the house and, after finding several lead hazards, ordered McDonough to relocate the Bratton family.
Because he refused to pay for the relocation process, however, McDonough was four months late in moving them, the couple claimed.
While they waited to be moved, the family was allegedly forced to live in a home that had some rooms cordoned off to limit the spread of lead-paint dust.
The Brattons sued McDonough for negligence and infliction of emotional distress. They claimed that their kids could not play with their toys or enter one of the bedrooms.
Also, they said that when anyone tried to enter one of the closed rooms, the children would scream, "The poison is going to kill us!"
The Somerset County Superior Court ruled for McDonough on several issues, leaving only negligence claims regarding the youngest child for the jury to consider. The jury found that McDonough was not negligent, but the Maine Supreme Court said on May 6 that the Brattons deserve a new trial because the lower court improperly excluded the expert opinions of two doctors who testified for the plaintiffs.
"The trial court should have recognized McDonough's arguments about the proffered testimony from Drs. Parent and Savage as challenges to the weight of their opinions rather than their admissibility," Justice Ellen Gorman wrote for a six-member panel.
It had also been erroneous for the court to focus on the portion of another doctor's testimony that did not support the Brattons' claims, according to the 18-page ruling.
That same doctor had said the two older children's behavioral and developmental problems could be attributed to the lead exposure. McDonough had presented evidence that attributed the blame for the children's problems on genetics, their mother's depression and their father's alcoholism.
"The evidence shows that McDonough allowed a family with young children to live in a house that exposed the children to toxic levels of lead for several years," Gorman wrote. "It further shows that even after the house had been declared a lead hazard by the state and although McDonough had a legal duty to relocate the Brattons, he failed to do so for four months. We cannot say as a matter of law that no reasonable juror could find McDonough's actions extreme and outrageous."