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At around 9 p.m. on Jan. 22, 1996, Nevelene Coleman put her 12-year-old daughter, Robin, to bed in her apartment in the Stoddert Terrace housing project in Southeast. The 34-year-old Coleman then went upstairs to give her grandson and two of her other seven children a bath. About 20 minutes later, she went downstairs to check on Robin. She’ll never forget what she saw when she entered the room.
Her daughter was lying on the floor in pain, her foot pinned between the wall and a heating pipea white-hot, uninsulated heating pipe. “There were big bubbles on her skin,” Nevelene recalls, tears coming to her eyes. “As I took her foot away from the pipe, you could see the skin just coming off on the pole. I was scared.”
So was her daughter, although she couldn’t say so. Robin has cerebral palsy, a condition that has severely curtailed her motor skills. So even though she could feel the scalding heat on her foot, she couldn’t pull away. And in spite of the fact that she needed help, she was unable to cry out. No one knows how long her foot cooked on the uninsulated pipeaccording to a physician with the Baltimore Regional Burn Center at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, it could have been anywhere from eight seconds to 20 minutes.
With no one else available to take care of her kids and grandson, Nevelene was forced to spend the night comforting her daughter, putting a cold compress on the burned foot, and coating it with Vaseline. The next morning, after Nevelene’s sister came over to baby-sit her other kids, an ambulance rushed Robin off to Children’s National Medical Center. Doctors found a third-degree burn that had melted Robin’s toes together. They recommended something called a transmetatarsal amputationher toes and the front half of her foot would have to come off.
It had been only a matter of time before the heating pipes at Stoddert Terrace ruined someone’s life. Residents say they’ve been complaining to D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) property managers for years about the pipes, which reach extremes of 190 degrees Fahrenheit. The pipes run horizontally a few inches off the floor, threatening every inhabitantespecially children and the handicappedof the complex. Even before Robin’s accident, Stoddert Terrace residents had begged authorities to insulate the pipes and save them from the periodic burns that were a routine part of living there.
Now, however, Nevelene Coleman wants something more than just a piece of heat-resistant foam. She is suing DCHA and the District government for $3 million in a case that will come before D.C. Superior Court on July 15.
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The first thing Nevelene Coleman did after she returned from the emergency room was to call the complex’s rental office. “I called downtown and cursed them out,” recalls Nevelene. She barely had to look up the number. Nevelene says that she’d been complaining about the danger of the pipes ever since she moved into the building in April 1993. “I can’t even remember how many times [I’ve complained], ’cause I just call every day….They used to say they’re going to send somebody down here because they got to order something for the poles. But it never happened ’til her toes got burned off.”
According to Nevelene and her attorneys at the Baltimore-based firm of Robinette, Dugan & Jakubowski, blame for the accident is shared by the District, which built the housing projects in 1960, and DCHA, which in 1995 assumed responsibility for managing the city’s public housing. George S. Tolley, who is representing Nevelene Coleman, points out that incidents prior to Robin’s mishap should have alerted DCHA to the hazard posed by the pipes at Stoddert Terrace and other nearby buildings heated by the complex’s boiler.
In 1991, in a building next door to the Colemans’, 61-year-old Ruth Glasco awoke from a seizure with a serious burn on her left arm. “I came in, and you could see where the pipe had set into the skin,” says Veronica Ford, Glasco’s daughter, who lived with and cared for her mother. Ford and her brother rushed Glasco, who has suffered chronic seizures all her life, to Washington Hospital Center, where doctors performed a skin graft.
Ford told housing authorities what had happened to her mother, and they came to her apartment with charcoal-colored foam, which they fastened to the pipes. “But what they used doesn’t hold too long,” says Ford. And in 1992, her mother burned herself on the pipe again, after which housing management dropped off a new batch of the insulation, leaving Ford to install it on her own.
In the wee hours of April 14, 1993, Ford was awakened by her daughter, who had noticed Glasco sitting up in bed, rubbing her neck. Ford rushed in to see her mother, who was, again, waking from a seizure. “The skin was rolling off her neck as she rubbed it,” Ford says. “I looked around, and that’s when I noticed the skin on the pipe.” After this third visit to the emergency room, Ford says a doctor said the unit wasn’t safe for Glasco. Glasco now lives in a Northwest nursing home. “I miss her a lot,” Ford says.
Glasco’s story alone, says Tolley, is enough to prove negligence on the part of DCHA. “They had actual notice from Miss Glasco that these pipes were actually dangerous, that they actually caused third-degree burns,” Tolley says. “And though the District of Columbia reacted to this knowledge by insulating the pipes in Miss Glasco’s apartment, they did nothing to protect the residents of the other apartments from a similar injury.” Ford still resides in the same apartment with her twin 5-year-old grandchildren. She says that she’s placed furniture to block the way to the pipes to protect them, but it’s still not enough. “The pipes are all around the windows. I’m worried, because I’ve burned myself.”
DCHA apparently didn’t consider the Coleman accident severe enough to warrant complexwide prevention. On April 10, 1996, 1-and-a-half-year-old Georvicqa Brown got “her little foot…caught up” in a pipe, according to her grandmother, Cheryl Brown. “It blistered up to a bubble. I didn’t know what to do,” says Brown, who knows a woman nearby whose four children have all been burned by the pipes. “But she’s afraid of getting accused of child abuse,” says Brown. And on March 28, 1997, in the same building where Ruth Glasco suffered her injuries, infant Paris Holeman rolled off a chaise longue and into a pipe, causing burns to his face, chest, and right leg. The accident left a deep scar on the left side of his face.
In its court filings, DCHA blames Robin Coleman’s tragedy on faulty mothering, not faulty maintenance. Nevelene Coleman, says a DCHA brief, “failed to seek timely medical intervention for any alleged incidents sustained on January 22, 1996.” But DCHA’s own expert physician, Dr. Burton Harris, chief of pediatric surgery at Georgetown University Medical Center, testified in a deposition that he didn’t “think the delay [in treatment] made any difference.” Judge Ellen Huvelle thereupon excluded that attack on Coleman’s mothering skills from the trial.
DCHA has hired a private firmWilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dickerto argue its case in court. The firm declined to comment on the merits of the case, as did DCHA spokesperson Arthur Jones. “Our position is filed with the court,” says Jones. “It’s a legal matter. It’s going to be litigated, and I can’t go beyond the filing that you have in your hands. Our position is very, very clear.”
For its part, the D.C. government is using bureaucracy as a defense against the Coleman suit. Legislation passed in 1995, say District lawyers, transferred oversight of Stoddert Terrace to DCHA, which bears sole responsibility for what happened to Robin Coleman. Walter Smith, a lawyer with the city’s Corporation Counsel, says, “I’m guessingand I’m only guessingthat DCHA…wasn’t organized to take on these complaints. The organization didn’t have the wherewithal, the money to do it.” Smith continues, “We as lawyers are not asked whether or not our heart goes out to this child, or if we’re sympatheticwe are. We’re asked if the District of Columbia is responsible, legally. And I think the answer is no.”
Both D.C. and DCHA have argued in court papers that since “modernization and repair of public housing are discretionary functions…[the government and DCHA are] immune from suits in making such decisions.” That rationale would presumably immunize the authority for allowing Stoddert Terrace’s roof to cave in. Huvelle threw out this argument as well.
All of which leaves the defendants attacking the victims themselves. “I am unclear about how the child’s foot got behind the pipe,” said Harris in his deposition. “I just don’t get that.” When asked about his testimony, Harris had no comment.
The defendants may still argue that Nevelene Coleman was negligent in leaving her daughter in the bedroom alone. The injuries, according to DCHA’s lawyers, “were the result of [Nevelene’s] own unlawful conduct, sole and/or contributing negligence and/or assumption of risk.”
Tolley, Coleman’s lawyer, says any discussion of neglect and responsibility will sink the defense. “It comes down to: Is it reasonable for a landlord to have a dangerous hazard like these pipes in residential units where children are exposed to temperatures that can cause third-degree burns in a matter of seconds?” asks Tolley.
As both sides prepare for a showdown in court, Robin attends the C. Melvin Sharpe Health School for children with orthopedic disabilities. Before the accident, she was working with a physical therapist who was trying to teach her to walka prospect that Nevelene says is now impossible. “She already got a lot of problems,” says Nevelene of her daughter, who, now 14, has the verbal skills of an infant and an IQ estimated at around 40, and needs a wheelchair to get around. “Now she got to get her toes cut off. I ain’t even got to see my daughter walk, and her toes come off,” she says.CP