The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that a Montgomery County woman who was raped 10 years ago can sue the local Housing Opportunities Commission for damages for failing to check the criminal record of a housing inspector who was charged with rape in the case.

At the time of the March 1976 incident, the inspector, George P. Slater, was free on bond awaiting trial in an October 1975 rape, and had been imprisoned from 1969 to 1973 on robbery and burglary convictions, according to court records. Slater is currently serving a life sentence in the Maryland Penitentiary for the 1975 rape.

Charges against Slater in the 1976 case were dropped as part of a plea bargain arrangement.

Slater, then 27, was hired in December 1975 for the housing job, which was federally funded through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program, after a supervisor was "advised that there were no other CETA-qualified applicants, and with the realization that if the position was not filled promptly, federal funding for it would probably be lost," according to court documents.

Yesterday's decision by the state's highest court overturned both a circuit court jury and the Court of Special Appeals. The appeals court ordered a new trial in the civil lawsuit that the woman filed against the housing commission, a public agency providing subsidized housing in Montgomery County.

The woman was renting a town house from the agency.

In its opinion, the appellate court said that the rape victim, "as a tenant, was clearly a person to whom the HOC owed a duty of reasonable care in the hiring of a housing inspector."

The court also said that the housing commission had "failed to undertake even the most rudimentary investigation."

The commission's general counsel, Ken Tecler, said yesterday that it "is too soon to tell" what effect the ruling could have on the county housing agency.

Washington lawyer Burt Braverman, who represented the rape victim, said the new trial will "focus on the question of liability." He noted that the housing commission has liability insurance that can pay up to $500,000, the amount of the damages sought by the rape victim in her lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, the woman alleged that the commission was negligent in hiring Slater for the job without having made any reasonable inquiry to ascertain his fitness for that position.

On Feb. 13, 1976, Slater inspected a town house where the woman, 32, lived with her two small children, according to the court documents. On the night of March 2, 1976, the woman was raped, after a man gained access through a kitchen window, the documents said.

When the woman's lawsuit was tried in April 1983, the jury found that the housing commission "acted carelessly and irresponsibly in failing" to check on Slater's background but concluded that the agency was not legally negligent in hiring him.

The appeals court opinion said the trial court erred when Circuit Court Judge William M. Cave refused to allow the woman's attorney to introduce evidence that the commission could have found out about Slater's prior convictions and his rape indictment by telephoning Montgomery County police.