A Rhode Island judge has ordered three former lead paint manufacturers to clean up contamination in Rhode Island and said he would appoint a special master to advise him on exactly what the companies should be required to do. Lawyers and financial analysts have said the cleanup could cost more than $1 billion.
The decision by Providence Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein marks a major step forward in the state’s lawsuit to force the companies — Cleveland-based Sherwin-Williams Co., Dallas-based NL Industries Inc. and Millennium Holdings LLC Cockeysville, Md. — to clean up properties that contain toxic lead paint.
A jury last February found the three manufacturers liable for creating a public nuisance, and Silverstein’s 197-page decision affirms that verdict. Silverstein did not predict a dollar figure or specify what the companies might have to do to fix the problem.
“Today’s final ruling is validation of our long fight to protect the public health and to ensure that our hardworking taxpayers no longer have to solve the problem themselves,” Attorney General Patrick Lynch said in a written statement.
Silverstein also rejected the companies’ motion for a new trial, saying the state presented enough evidence to support the jury’s verdict. He granted the state’s request for a special master to help recommend a cleanup plan and perhaps monitor its implementation.
Jack McConnell, a lawyer representing the state, called the judge’s decision a “huge, huge victory for lead-poisoned children, homeowners and taxpayers.”
The companies said they planned to appeal.
“It is really far from over,” said Bonnie Campbell, a spokeswoman for the companies and a former Iowa attorney general. She said there were numerous legal errors made at trial, including that the judge did not require the state to show the companies had done anything wrong.
Campbell declined to comment on whether the companies would seek a stay of the judge’s order pending their appeal.
Lead paint was banned for residential use by the federal government in 1978, but the state said it is still present in roughly 250,000 older homes in Rhode Island and that tens of thousands of children have been poisoned by lead.
Studies have shown children who eat or breathe flaking paint chips or dust can suffer reduced intelligence, stomach problems, kidney and brain damage, and in the most extreme cases, death. Manufacturers used to put lead in paint because it made it more durable.
Lawyers for the state have estimated that cleanup costs could range between $1.37 billion and $3.74 billion. To remove or cover up lead paint in one home can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000, according to the state, federal government and nonprofit groups.
“We would hope that the defendants would now step up to the plate, stop with their litigation and begin doing the right thing by helping clean up the mess,” said Roberta Hazen Aaronson, executive director of the Childhood Lead Action Project, an advocacy group that works to end child lead poisoning.
Silverstein said the special master would serve in an advisory role, considering questions including how much a cleanup plan would cost, whether any of its elements duplicate programs already provided by the state and whether the defendants have the practical ability to carry it out.
The state has said the plan should include inspections of older homes, education and the covering up and removal of flaking or chipping lead paint.
Silverstein said he will ask both sides to recommended a special master.
Rhode Island became the first state to sue former lead paint and pigment manufacturers when it brought the suit in 1999. The first trial ended in 2002 with a hung jury, and the second trial began three years later.
The state called as witnesses doctors, home inspectors and public health historians. The companies chose not to call any of their own witnesses in the second trial, instead presenting their case by grilling the state’s witnesses.
The companies argued that the state’s lawyers misrepresented the extent of the lead paint problem, citing a decline in the incidence of childhood lead poisoning as contradicting the claims of a public nuisance. They also argued that landlords who failed to maintain their properties were more responsible than companies who stopped manufacturing a product decades ago.
A fourth company named in the suit, Atlantic Richfield Co., was found not responsible by the jury.
Though no other states have sued, lawsuits brought by cities and counties elsewhere in the country are moving through the courts.
Shares of Sherwin-Williams fell $2.22, or 3.2 percent, to close at $67.77 on the New York Stock Exchange while shares of NL Industries fell 9 cents to $11.64.
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