The highest court in Rhode Island on Tuesday overturned a jury decision that would have forced three paint manufacturers to pay billions of dollars to clean up contaminated homes.Skip to next paragraph In 2005, John McConnell argued the state’s case in Providence, R.I., as Attorney General Patrick Lynch, right, listened.
The decision by the Rhode Island Supreme Court reversed a landmark 2006 ruling that held the three companies — Sherwin-Williams, NL Industries and Millennium Holdings — liable for creating a public nuisance by making and selling lead paint more than 30 years ago, then covering up the health risks. Cleanup costs in Rhode Island had been estimated at $2.4 billion.
The court, in its 4-to-0 decision, said the lawsuit should have been dismissed at the outset because “public nuisance law simply does not provide a remedy for this harm.”
The justices added that the paint companies did not have control over how their lead-based products were used. Instead, the court said, the burden of making properties safe from lead contamination should rest with landlords and property owners.
“Today’s ruling is a landmark victory for common sense and for responsible companies that did the right thing,” Charles H. Moellenberg Jr., a lawyer for Sherwin-Williams, said in a statement. “The responsibility of making sure children aren’t exposed to lead paint remains squarely on property owners.”
Appellate courts in Illinois, Missouri and New Jersey have rejected similar public nuisance claims. The ruling in Rhode Island could affect pending court decisions in Ohio and California.
Rhode Island was the first state to take on paint manufacturers when it filed a lawsuit against the companies and the Lead Industries Association, a trade group, in October 1999. The state claimed that lead paint constituted a public nuisance in Rhode Island, where more than 43 percent of the houses were built before 1950.
In the first trial, which ended in a mistrial after seven weeks in 2002, jurors were split 4 to 2 in favor of the paint companies. Three years later, the case again went to trial, resulting in the longest civil jury trial in the state’s history. After four months, the jury ruled against the paint manufacturers. It was the only time the lead paint industry had lost a case.
The United States banned lead paint in 1978 after studies linked it to learning disabilities and mental retardation in children, and, in extreme cases, death.
“This reversal is extremely disappointing and I disagree with it in the strongest terms,” Patrick C. Lynch, the Rhode Island attorney general, said in a statement. “Those products poisoned our infants and children — and continue to poison our infants and children — while bringing great profits to the companies that made and sold them.”
John J. McConnell Jr., a lawyer for the Motley Rice law firm, which represented the state, said it would cost Rhode Island homeowners billions of dollars to clean their homes and millions more for taxpayers to protect children from lead-related illnesses.
“We’re clearly very disappointed” in the ruling, Mr. McConnell said. “Children in Rhode Island will continue to be poisoned by lead in paint and the companies that put the poisonous paint in Rhode Island have no responsibility for cleaning up the mess that they created in the first place.”
The court emphasized that 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,” the ruling read.