The mission of Michigan Law’s Veterans Legal Clinic is to help former members of the military in a broad range of civil matters, from divorce and eviction to discharge upgrades. But in 2019, the clinic took on a different kind of case and, when it concluded earlier this year, helped a small boy who had suffered lead poisoning in his Detroit home.
The boy—the son of a veteran—was a toddler when he moved with his parents into a rented home that was built before 1978, the year lead was banned from household paints. The landlord hired a handyman to repaint the home, but the worker was not certified to do lead paint repairs even though the city requires a certificate of compliance and a lead clearance for such work.
The tragic result was exposure to lead paint and lead-contaminated dust that has caused serious and possibly lifelong health issues for the boy, now 6.
“He had an elevated blood lead level about double the current limit,” said Carrie Floyd, teaching fellow in the clinic. She added that the client and legal team are prohibited from discussing the specifics of the case. However, the client received a settlement with the landlord and a default judgment against the remaining defendant.
“We hired an expert to test the child, and it seems like there are significant results of neurological challenges that he will face as a result of being exposed to lead.”
Access to legal help
Such stories are not uncommon in Detroit, where one in 10 children suffers from lead poisoning due to exposure to lead paint, according to CLEARCorps/Detroit.
“Tenants trust the people from whom they are renting the houses,” said 3L My Seppo, who worked in the clinic in fall 2022. “But some of the houses are in an unlivable condition. This family thought the house was safe, because that’s what they were told.”
When exposure does occur, many of the families in such homes do not have access to legal help.
“The private bar is just not able to take these cases for a variety of reasons,” said Floyd. For example, they are resource-intensive and expensive to litigate, and most landlords have liability insurance policies with lead paint riders excluding injuries resulting from lead paint exposure. “And that's part of why this case was particularly important for the clinic to work on.”
At the same time, the case also provided an excellent learning opportunity for the 2L and 3L students, approximately 18 in total, who worked on the case over four years. Initially, they investigated the issue when the family contacted the clinic in late 2019 after hearing about it through the Veterans Administration. Subsequently, their responsibilities covered the spectrum of legal services, everything from drafting the complaint and taking depositions to appearing at hearings and identifying a guardian ad litem to represent the boy.
During his 2L year, James Whippo, currently a 3L, spent much time with the clinic doing research related to certificates of habitability and the responsibilities that landlords have regarding lead abatement. He said that the complicated nature of the case meant that it took a long time to achieve a positive outcome.
“The nature of that type of case—where your child is injured—means there's a lot of emotion involved for the client,” he said. “Obviously they're very upset, and they want something to be done sooner rather than later. So there was a lot of expectation management.”
Having served five years in the Marine Corps, Whippo brought a heightened level of empathy to the case.
“I have a soft spot for other veterans, especially when they’re going through legal trouble,” he said. “And that’s a rough place for anybody to be in.”
The law as a tool for change
Seppo said it was powerful to see the family realize that the law could help change their lives in light of the circumstances.
“A lot of people really don’t know what the law can do for you,” she said. “I think there's a huge fear, especially in communities where their primary exposure to the law is the criminal justice system. The law does not have to be a tool against them.”
She added that one difficult aspect of her work was anticipating the damages into the future as the boy grows older because no one knows precisely what his needs are going to be as he develops.
“When I helped write the default judgment for this defendant, it was hard to strike a balance between a number that felt like it captured the amount of harm long term but still wasn't so unreasonable that the court would just toss it out.”
Floyd said that is a challenge with lead paint cases. In the meantime, the parents will often wonder if a health or behavior problem is the result of the lead poisoning.
“It is something that they'll have to deal with for the rest of his life.”