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May 15, 2008
Update: Lawyers argue appeal in lead paint case / Photo
Journal photo / Bill Murphy
Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Paul Suttel, left, confers with Chief Justice Frank J. Williams, right, as the court hears final arguments today in the appeal of the landmark lead-paint convictions.
PROVIDENCE -- Lawyers, business people and child advocates crammed the Rhode Island Supreme Court and a nearby room for overflow today for legal arguments over one of the biggest civil cases in state history, the state’s public nuisance lawsuit against three corporations that sold lead paints in Rhode Island.
The stakes in a lawsuit probably never have been higher in Rhode Island. Unless the Supreme Court overrules a jury’s 2006 verdict, the defendant companies may have to spend up to $3 billion to clean up lead paint on some 240,000 houses in Rhode Island.
A total of 13 lawyers argued a series of issues before four Supreme Court justices for almost four hours. The judges fired back a barrage of questions, and many suggested they had some doubts about the legal theories that supported the state’s public nuisance case against Sherwin Williams Co., Millennium Holdings and NL Industries.
Paint company lawyers argued that the legal arguments used by the state charted new legal territory that is not supported by precedents anywhere.
Lawyers for the state said the fact that lead paints have poisoned 36,000 children in Rhode Island and caused vast expenditures by local governments, schools, landlords and parents is common sense proof that the companies created a public nuisance.
The arguments were not without some moments of humor. Chief Justice Frank J. Williams warned the lawyers to curb their arguments. “We feel like we’re on the receiving end of a fire hose here,” he said as the proceedings got under way. “Less is more. We know the issues.”
The justices are expected to issue a written ruling this summer.
The presentation before the state Supreme Court was recessed at 12:49 p.m., after Williams thanked all involved. "This is what the public should see," he said, about how the legal system works.
And in this case, the public went beyond what the courtrooms in the Licht Judicial Complex could hold. For the first time, a state high court proceeding was broadcast live on the Web, allowing anyone with Internet access to watch.
-- Journal Environmental Writer Peter B. Lord, with projo.com reports
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