The paint industry scored a major victory last month when the Rhode Island state Supreme Court reversed the first-ever jury verdict finding former lead paint companies liable for creating a public nuisance in homes across that state.
In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that Sherwin-Williams, NL Industries and Millennium Holdings—all found liable during the highly publicized 2006 trial—should not have to pay billions of dollars in cleanup costs. The 81-page decision said that the companies could not be penalized under the state’s public nuisance laws because they no longer controlled the paint after it was sold to consumers.
The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments—including some from representatives of the three paint companies—in May and made the reversal July 1. In dismissing the case, the court eliminated the state’s proposed $2.4 billion cleanup of roughly 240,000 older homes, which would have been funded by the companies.
In a statement, Charles H. Moellenberg Jr., a lawyer for Sherwin-Williams, called the ruling “a landmark victory for common sense and for responsible companies that did the right thing. The responsibility of making sure children aren’t exposed to lead paint remains squarely on property owners.”
For Rhode Island, it was another jolt in what has become a high-stakes battle to determine the paint industry’s responsibility in our nation’s lead paint problem. Lead paint poisoning has been particularly pervasive in older buildings where walls are peeling and children can ingest flaking chips or dust, leading to a variety of health problems.
The 2006 verdict in favor of the plaintiffs—the first victory against the paint industry—gave other states hope that they could win similar judgments. The reversal has had the opposite effect.
“The Rhode Island Supreme Court said that the judge—however well-intentioned on behalf of the public interest in eradicating childhood lead exposure in the state—should have dismissed the case at the outset,” Thomas Graves, vp and general counsel of the National Paint & Coatings Association (NPCA), told HCN.
“In order to bring a cause of action to abate a public nuisance, the state has an obligation to show that there has been an unreasonable interference with a public right and that the defendant is in control of the situation,” Graves said. “Here, the problem exists inside