A Greenbelt man’s secondhand smoke lawsuit against his neighbors and housing cooperative Greenbelt Homes Inc. has gone up in smoke on appeal, but experts say this may not be the last such case.
The Maryland Special Appeals Court filed an opinion June 27 that upheld a Prince George’s County Circuit Court decision against plaintiff David Schuman, who sued Greenbelt Homes Inc. and his neighbors, finding Schuman was not entitled to damages for the neighbors’ secondhand smoke.
According to court filings, Schuman originally sued Darko Popovic and his wife, Svetlana Popovic, as well as GHI in March 2010 for $300,000 in compensatory damages alleging secondhand smoke from the Popovics’ town home was seeping into his town home. The two residences had a common wall.
However, in the time it took the case to wind its way through the legal system, Svetlana Popovic passed away, and Darko Popovic agreed to only smoke outside.
Darko Popovic declined to speak with The Gazette. Calls to Schuman and his attorney, J.P. Szymkowicz, were not returned.
“Mr. Schuman, by his own testimony, said the situation was remedied by shutting his window and turning on the fan,” said Kathleen Hoke, director of the University of Maryland Legal Resource Center for Tobacco Regulation, Litigation and Advocacy.
Hoke said that because the suit progressed to the point where the plaintiff’s initial complaint no longer applied, the court never answered the central question of whether a person can sue for damages due to secondhand smoke.
“No door has been closed to possible future litigation,” Hoke said.
“As we went smoke-free in our workplaces and in public places, ironically, the place where people felt they were less safe [from second-hand smoke] was in their home. On the other hand, many people feel it’s their right to smoke in the privacy of their own homes. It’s almost a perfect storm of rights and responsibilities in this context,” Hoke said.
GHI was included as a defendant because Schuman alleged the smoking violated the nuisance clause of the Mutual Owner Contract, an agreement signed by each individual buying a home in the publicly owned cooperative. The contract states residents will not engage in nuisance behavior.
GHI property manager Eldon Ralph declined to discuss the particulars of the case, saying only, “I think the court’s opinion speaks for itself.”
Ralph said that during GHI’s annual membership meeting, held May 16, a proposal was passed allowing GHI members to ban smoking in their individual row of homes.
The co-op consists of 1,600 homes on 256 acres, and homes are arranged in rows of two to eight attached units.
Ralph said that if all of a row’s residents agree, they can amend their Mutual Owner Contract to ban smoking, and future residents would have to abide by the ban. To date, no row has amended the contract to become smoke-free, Ralph said.
Ralph said the new policy is not directly tied to the suit, except in that the suit may have brought the subject to the forefront of residents’ minds.
Hoke said that statewide and nationally, condominium boards, apartment management companies and similar housing organizations are voluntarily banning smoking within buildings, and in the long run, this is more effective and less time-consuming than litigation.
“We receive calls almost on a daily basis from multi-unit homeowners and condominium associations on how they can go smoke-free,” Hoke said.