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Baltimore Lead-Poison Victims Lose Money In Settlements


The prestigious George Polk Awards in Journalism were announced this past week. And among the winners is our next guest, Terrence McCoy of The Washington Post. Last year, McCoy revealed how poor people in Maryland who suffer from lead poisoning got substantial settlements from landlords and then lost most of that money to businesses that offered them upfront cash.

Terrence McCoy, thank you for joining us. Congratulations on your award.


WERTHEIMER: Let's start with an example of how much money was at stake in these restructured settlements, as they're called, and how these folks lost money.

MCCOY: After these people incurred this sort of lead paint poisoning, they oftentimes were inflicted with significant cognitive impairments. Many of them couldn't read. A number of them failed out of school, and they later sued and were awarded substantial amounts of money. We're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that money was supposed to protect them and insulate them from the stresses of their life.

But what is different about structured settlements is, opposed to it being dispensed in one immediate lump sum, it was dispensed across decades, almost like a paycheck that would show up every single week for that person. And as opposed to wanting to wait across decades to make all of that money in that structured settlement lead check, as they became called, people would sell them for a sharply discounted amount of immediate cash.

WERTHEIMER: Twenty cents on the dollar, that kind of thing.

MCCOY: Sometimes even less.

WERTHEIMER: Now, your investigation kicked off after you started looking into the life of Freddie Gray. People will remember him as the man who died in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department last April. He and his family members lived in housing where there was lots of lead paint. They had brain damage as a result of the lead paint. How did it happen that he signed away so much of his settlement?

MCCOY: The story Freddie Gray is, in many ways, the story of Baltimore. He's an archetypal figure in the fact that he was born into a lead-painted tenement. And as he was growing up, he had a series of difficulties, whether that was in school or run-ins with the law. He was in special education. And after that, his family sued for the brain damage that he and his siblings had as a result of that lead paint. They were given a large amount of money.

WERTHEIMER: A series of settlements - one for each child, as I understand it.

MCCOY: That's exactly right - one for each child. After that, they got into a series of deals with companies in the Maryland area that pretty much gave them a sharply discounted amount of money. We're talking about 19 cents on the dollar, 20 cents on the dollar.

WERTHEIMER: Now, obviously, people who get a settlement like that, they look at the total, and they think it's huge. And of course, people also have lots of immediate concerns, like debt that they need to pay. It's easy to see why somebody would go for a deal like this. But was there no protection against it?

MCCOY: Well, how it worked was the decision of whether or not these deals were in somebody's best interest or not was, in a sense, outsourced to the judiciary. County judges - it was at their discretion to be able to decide - is this person - do they have the mental/cognitive faculties necessary to be able to make these sensitive financial decisions? And this is what, we found, was oftentimes the judges just signing and saying that these deals were OK when, in fact, some of these people might not have had the cognitive capacity to be able to say who they were.

WERTHEIMER: What has happened since your article appeared in August?

MCCOY: This article prompted action from all three branches of government in Maryland. The Maryland attorney general's office has filed papers trying to better understand how some of these lawyers were working at these cases. The legislature has proposed legislative to reform this whole system. The judicial branch has come in and reformed the rules. Now, everyone who's selling one of these deals - they need to go to the courthouse themselves. And they need to be - pretty much look that judge in the eye, and the judge has a much better ability to be able to ascertain whether that person understands how much they're giving up for sometimes how little.

WERTHEIMER: Terrence McCoy, thank you for a much. Congratulations again on your Polk Award for reporting for The Washington Post.

MCCOY: Thanks very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.