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July 1, 2008
Update: Landmark lead-paint judgment overturned
PROVIDENCE -- The Rhode Island Supreme Court today unanimously reversed a lower court’s verdict in favor of the state in its landmark lawsuit against companies that manufactured and sold lead paint in Rhode Island.
In a 4-0 decision, the court reversed a Superior Court jury's decision calling for Millennium Holdings, NL Industries and Sherwin-Williams to participate in an abatement program to clean houses that may have cost the companies upwards of $2.4 billion.
The court also upheld a judgment in favor of ARCO.
The court said that the state could not factually support its claim that companies created a public nuisance.
In the decision, the court said it did not mean to minimize the severity of the harm that thousands of children in Rhode Island have suffered as a result of lead poisoning.
“Our hearts go out to those children whose lives forever have been changed by the poisonous presence of lead. But, however grave the problem of lead poisoning is in Rhode Island, public nuisance law simply does not provide a remedy for this harm. The state has not and cannot allege facts that would fall within the parameters of what would constitute public nuisance under Rhode Island law.”
Supporters of the state's case were predictably disappointed by the decision. Lawyers for the paint companies called the decision "a victory for common sense," and said it "brings Rhode Island back into the mainstream of national law."
But Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch called "enormously disappointing" the court’s reversal today of the jury verdict.
“Today’s decision affects every Rhode Islander, every taxpayer, every parent and, especially, every child -- who has been injured, is still threatened with injury today, or will be poisoned by lead in the future," Lynch said in a statement this afternoon. "This reversal is enormously disappointing, and I disagree with it in the strongest terms."
And U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who filed Rhode Island's first lawsuit against lead paint manufacturers when he was the state's attorney general, said the court today let the companies "off the hook.”
“Many homes remain contaminated; many children already suffer from lead poisoning. Today’s decision makes abatement and treatment efforts the responsibility of Rhode Island families and taxpayers alone, letting the companies who caused this off the hook," Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, said in a statement.
After having work done on his Providence house, annual lead-screening tests had revealed Whitehouse's two children had mildly elevated blood-lead levels.
Extra: Read the decision.
Read about the jury verdict in the trial.
Extra: See The Journal's series on lead poisoning in Rhode Island
More reaction below:
-- projo.com staff writer Brandie M. Jefferson, Journal environment writer Peter B. Lord and projo.com staff writer Michael P. McKinney
One of the state’s leading advocates in fighting childhood lead poisoning said she was "profoundly disappointed" but not surprised.
Roberta Hazen Aaronson, executive director of the Childhood Lead Action Project, said the judges expressed strong skepticism of the state’s nuisance theories during oral arguments in May.
Aaronson said she fears that decision will dampen efforts around the country to make the paint companies pay for the harm caused by lead paints. “They wanted a big win here to put a halt to litigation elsewhere,” she said. “And they got it.”
Aaronson is also the co-author of an op-ed column today on projo.com titled "Don’t let paint firms wiggle away."
Jack McConnell, a private lawyer who played a key role in presenting the state’s case, “We are very disappointed that the R.I. Supreme Court chose to ignore the verdict of a jury of Rhode Island citizens and the judgment of a preeminent trial judge in order to absolve the lead paint companies of any responsibility for contaminating thousands of houses in Rhode Island with a poison that has injured tens of thousands of Rhode Island children.”
“This decision leaves homeowners no legal remedy for that contamination against the corporations who made the harmful product in the first place; it will cost the homeowners billions to clean up, and cost the Rhode Island taxpayers millions more than it already has spent .
Don Scott, a lawyer for one of the defendants, NL Industries, said “Today’s ruling brings Rhode Island back into the mainstream of national law.”
Scott said appellate courts in New Jersey, Missouri and Illinois have rejected public nuisance claims against former lead manufacturers.
“Every lawsuit against former manufacturers of lead pigment across the country that has come to a final decision has come out on the side of the manufacturers,” Scott said.
Charles H. Moellenberg, Jr., an attorney for Sherwin Williams, said, “Today’s ruling is a landmark victory for common sense and for responsible companies that did the right thing. This case never should have been filed – it was factually wrong and legally flawed. A company should not be held liable when there is no proof that it did anything wrong.”
In the first hour of stock market trading following the release of the decision, share prices for Sherwin Williams and NL Industries rose slightly. When the Rhode Island jury came down against the companies two years ago, the share prices dropped dramatically.
In response to a reporter’s questions at a press conference today, Moellenberg said Sherwin Williams will consider trying to recover some of its costs during the 9 years of litigation. “This litigation has gone on for a long time and it was unwarranted. The defendant will take a close look at our right to recover costs.”
Moellenberg said he didn’t know what the costs would total.
The lawsuit was filed in 1999, and the first trial ended in mistrial.
It was tried again starting in late 2005, and the four-month trial constituted the longest civil trial in the state's history. On February 22, 2006, a jury found NL Industries, Inc.; the Sherwin-Williams Co. and Millennium Holdings LLC liable under a public nuisance theory.
It was the first time in U.S. history that a trial resulted in a verdict that imposed liability against lead paint manufacturers for creating a public nuisance.
Today's decision also brought two small victories for the state.
The Supreme Court vacated the two contempt citations against Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch. He was fined $15,000 for publicly criticizing the paint company lawyers.
The ruling validated the state's right to have a private attorney represent it on a contingency basis. Law firm Motley Rice was poised to collect 16.6 percent of any money awarded to the state in the case of a favorable ruling.
Your turn: React to the state Supreme Court's ruling.
Posted by Brandie M. Jefferson at 6:50 PM | Permalink
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