The recent $10,000,000 settlement paid by the State of California Department of Transportation ("Caltrans") in a Santa Clarita County lead poisoning lawsuit, characterizes the growing public movement to bring attention to the presence of lead-based paint in many older buildings throughout California and the potential for liability when lead-based paint in habited buildings is permitted to chip and decay. While cases of lead poisoning have dropped nationwide, California health officials are increasing their efforts to find and remove lead-based paint from lower income neighborhoods. In light of these efforts and the July 2015 Caltrans settlement, there will likely be an increase in the number of lawsuits filed under theories of breach of the warranty of habitability and negligence per se. Therefore, minimizing lead dust, chips, and flakes should be a primary focus of any efforts to protect against and to prevent exposure.
In Conner Michaels-Nolan, et al. v. State of California Department of Transportation, Plaintiffs, Connor Michaels-Nolan, Heather Nolan, and Cynthia Wright, resided in a South Pasadena single-family home owned by Caltrans. On March 20, 2013, after four-year old Conner Michaels-Nolan was diagnosed with lead poisoning, Plaintiffs brought a Complaint for Damages under several causes of action, including negligence per se, violation of Civil Code § 1942.4, breach of the warranty of habitability, and breach of mandatory duty.
California's Civil Code § 1942.4, states that a landlord of a dwelling cannot collect rent if the property is not in a habitable condition. Significantly, a property must be free of debris, filth, rubbish, garbage, rodents, and vermin. Here, Plaintiffs' alleged that Caltrans had actual and constructive notice that the peeling and chipping paint present throughout the property was lead-based. Therefore, under their negligence per se cause of action, Plaintiffs alleged Caltrans' violation of the statute was a substantial factor in causing Connor Michaels-Nolan's injuries.
Caltrans ultimately settled the case, after Plaintiffs presented evidence that officials noted the chipping paint in their inspection of the building and provided Plaintiffs with a pamphlet on the dangers of lead-based paint. Caltrans agreed to provide a lifetime of medical and other care to Conner Michaels-Nolan, along with damages in the amount of $9,850,000. Heather Nolan received damages amounting to $100,000 and Cynthia Wright received $50,000.
Santa Clarita County recently received a portion of more than $900,000 from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to increase outreach and education of the dangers of lead poisoning and to expand testing of older buildings throughout the county for lead-based paints. While the property at issue in the Caltrans case was found to have lead-based paint at levels exceeding state exposure limits, many government-sponsored studies show where levels are under the exposure limits, the safest approach is to keep the paint in place. As a result, any potential hazards of lead-based paint results from sanding or cutting into the paint and creating paint chips and flakes. Lead-based paint only poses a hazard when it is disturbed and turns into dust.