Milwaukee Court: Paint Manufacturers Not Responsible for Clean Up

June 25, 2007

A manufacturer of lead pigments used in paint does not have to pay to cleanup Milwaukee properties contaminated with the now-banned substance, a jury ruled Friday, June 22.

The Milwaukee County Circuit jury rejected the city of Milwaukee’s claims that NL Industries Inc. should have to pay $52.6 million to clean up some 11,000 homes in mostly poor neighborhoods.

The federal government banned lead paint in 1978, but it is still present in older buildings. Lead in the bloodstream can cause neurological damage and learning disabilities, especially in children.

According to evidence presented at the trial here, more than 7,000 of Milwaukee’s children were found in 1996 to have lead in their blood at levels deemed unsafe.

The city had argued the firm created a public nuisance that poisoned thousands of Milwaukee youngsters and conspired with others to create the nuisance.

The jury agreed the problem was a public nuisance. But it said NL Industries did not intentionally and unreasonably engage in conduct that caused the nuisance and was not negligent.

Donald Scott, NL’s primary lawyer in the case, argued in court the city and the federal government mandated the use of lead paint for their projects into the 1970s because it is so durable, even though the dangers were public knowledge.

“The city had been demanding, from the 1890s to the 1960s, demanding our product by name,” Scott said Friday after the verdict. “This is a claim that never should have been brought.”

Richard Lewis, the lead attorney for the city, said the city’s legal team would consider all of its options, including an appeal.

“We’re disappointed in the verdict, but I think it’s important that the jurors found this was a public nuisance,” he said.

A Rhode Island jury in February 2006 found NL and two other companies, Sherwin-Williams Co. and Millennium Holdings LLC, liable for creating a public nuisance. A judge plans to appoint a special master to help decide how the companies should be forced to clean up properties across the state that are contaminated with lead paint.

But elsewhere in the country, lawsuits against the companies have hit recent setbacks.

The New Jersey Supreme Court scuttled June 15 a lawsuit brought by 26 counties and towns and seeking to have paint makers cover the cost of removing lead paint, and the Missouri Supreme Court blocked three days earlier a suit by St. Louis that sought to recover cleanup costs from former lead paint and pigment makers.

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