Rhode Island Top Court Overturns Landmark Lead Paint Ruling

July 1, 2008

Rhode Island’s top court Tuesday overturned a landmark lower court ruling that three former manufacturers of lead paint were liable for creating a public nuisance by covering up the health risks of lead paint.

The three former lead paint makers — Sherwin-Williams Co , NL Industries Incand Millennium Holdings — had asked the Rhode Island Supreme Court to overturn a Feb. 22, 2006, jury verdict that could have forced them to pay billions of dollars to clean up contaminated paint around the state.

Rhode Island’s decision could influence court decisions in other states, counties and cities where lead-poisoning lawsuits are pending. The lead paint case had drawn comparisons to the tobacco lawsuits that ultimately led to a settlement that cost cigarette makers more than $200 billion.

Shares in Sherwin-Williams rose 1.9 percent to $46.81 after the decision, while NL Industries added 0.21 percent to $9.55.

Rhode Island accused paint manufacturers of covering up the risk of lead paint in its lawsuit filed in 1999, the first in the nation to seek to hold paint makers responsible.

Rhode Island authorities say more than 30,000 children were poisoned by lead paint in the state, with an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 homes contaminated by the paint. The cost of cleaning one home is estimated at up to $15,000.

“However grave the problem of lead poisoning is in Rhode Island, public nuisance law simply does not provide a remedy for this harm,” the court said in a unanimous 4-0 opinion that followed oral arguments on May 15.

It said the state failed to “establish that defendants interfered with a public right or that defendants were in control of the lead pigment they or their predecessors manufactured at the time it caused harm to Rhode Island children.”

Lead paint was banned by the U.S. government in 1978 after studies showed it caused health problems in children, including learning disabilities and permanent brain damage.

But its presence remains widespread, especially in older homes in the northeastern United States. Rhode Island children routinely test above the national average for blood-lead levels.

The paint companies denied that they were directly responsible, saying landlords, not paint makers, should be held accountable for conditions that expose children to lead. A Rhode Island court in 2006 denied punitive damage claims against the paint companies.

“Today’s ruling is a landmark victory for common sense and for responsible companies that did the right thing,” Charles Moellenberg, an attorney representing Sherwin-Williams and Millennium Holdings, said in a statement.

“This case never should have been filed — it was factually wrong and legally flawed,” he added.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court said a trial judge erred by denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

“In reaching this conclusion, we do not mean to minimize the severity of the harm that thousands of children in Rhode Island have suffered as a result of lead poisoning,” the court said.

(Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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