Tort Law

Rhode Island Supreme Court Overturns Verdict Against Lead Paint Makers

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The Rhode Island Supreme Court has overturned the nation’s first public nuisance verdict against former manufacturers of lead paint.

Defendants in the case are Sherwin-Williams Co., NL Industries Inc. and Millennium Holdings, the Associated Press reports. The companies had been found liable in 2006 for creating a public nuisance.

The supreme court said public nuisance law, which focuses on curtailing annoying or bothersome activities, has never been applied to products. The justices declined to be the first to do so in the lead-paint case.

“However grave the problem of lead poisoning is in Rhode Island, public nuisance law simply does not provide a remedy for this harm,” the court said in its opinion (PDF) released today. “Defendants were not in control of any lead pigment at the time the lead caused harm to children in Rhode Island, making defendants unable to abate the alleged nuisance, the standard remedy in a public nuisance action.”

A lawyer for Sherwin-Williams, Charles Moellenberg Jr., applauded the decision. “Today’s ruling is a landmark victory for common sense and for responsible companies that did the right thing,” he said in a statement. “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.”

The companies had argued public nuisance theory is flawed because it allows a jury to find liability without any evidence about whether or to what extent their paint contributed to the problems.

Siding with the companies, the court said it was restrained by the common law of public nuisance, and it is “powerless to fashion independently a cause of action that would achieve the justice that these children deserve.” The opinion quoted Justice Benjamin Cardozo, who said a judge “is not a knight-errant roaming at will in pursuit of his own ideal of beauty or of goodness.”

The state attorney general had claimed that some 240,000 homes in Rhode Island are covered in lead-based paints and that thousands of the state’s children have been poisoned by the dust. The state had estimated the cost of cleanup at $2.4 billion.

Public nuisance claims against paint manufacturers have also failed in New Jersey, Ohio, Missouri and Wisconsin, the ABA Journal reported in advance coverage of the case, “Primed for Lead Paint Litigation.”

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