Jurors Hear Closing Arguments in R.I. Lead Paint Case

February 13, 2006

Former lead pigment manufacturers knew their product caused brain damage and killed children but continued to sell it anyway, a lawyer said last Friday as the closing arguments concluded in the state’s lawsuit against the lead paint industry.

Jack McConnell, a lawyer for the state, told jurors they have a once in a lifetime opportunity to solve what he said was the number one health problem facing Rhode Island children. He urged the jury to hold the companies liable for the problems caused by lead paint in homes and buildings around the state.

“The sale and promotion of lead in paint by these defendants set in motion a chain of events that we’re still suffering from today,” McConnell said.

The state says the presence of lead paint creates a public nuisance that sickens children, contaminates homes and burdens families, landlords and taxpayers. Rhode Island was the first state in 1999 to sue the lead paint industry; an earlier trial ended in 2002 with a hung jury.

Though lead paint was banned for residential use in 1978, the state says it still remains in hundreds of thousands of homes in Rhode Island and has poisoned tens of thousands of children since the early 1990s. Studies have shown that flaking paint chips or dust can cause brain damage in children who eat or inhale it.

Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein, who was expected to give jury instructions Friday, instead dismissed jurors until Monday afternoon. He did not say why. The trial has lasted more than three months.

The defendants rested without calling any witnesses and said the state failed to prove its case. The companies say the state’s lead paint problem is limited to some poorly maintained properties. They point to a declining rate of lead poisoning in children as proof that there is no public nuisance from lead paint.

McConnell called the companies’ defenses insulting and irrelevant, likening them to an arsonist who blames a fire department for not arriving soon enough at the scene of a fire.

“Isn’t it convenient that everybody else behaves poorly when it comes to lead in paint except them? Everybody else,” McConnell said.

The state says the companies had a wealth of information decades ago about the health hazards of lead paint. But instead of removing it from the market, they downplayed the dangers and engaged in an “unending battle” to continue selling and promoting the product, McConnell said.

Jurors will be asked to decide whether the presence of lead paint creates a public nuisance in Rhode Island and, if it does, whether the defendants significantly contributed to the nuisance and should be ordered to help fix the problem.

McConnell said lead paint remained a societal scourge even if most people do not become sickened by it.

“Just because Katrina didn’t flood every home in New Orleans doesn’t make it any less of a disaster,” McConnell said.

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