Rhode Island’s highest appellate court has overturned a landmark lower court ruling that three former manufacturers of lead paint were legally responsible for creating a public nuisance by covering up the health risks of lead paint. The three former lead paint makers — Sherwin-Williams Co., NL Industries Inc. and Millennium Holdings — had asked the Rhode Island Supreme Court to overturn a 2006 jury verdict that would have required them to pay billions of dollars to clean up contaminated paint around the state. The Rhode Island decision may have a negative impact in other states, counties and cities where lead-poisoning lawsuits are pending.
As you may recall, Rhode Island accused paint manufacturers of covering up the risk of lead paint. That state’s lawsuit, filed in 1999, was the first in the nation to seek to hold paint makers responsible. Rhode Island authorities say more than 30,000 children were poisoned by lead paint in the state, with an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 homes contaminated by the paint. The cost of cleaning one home is estimated at up to $15,000. The court’s opinion reads:
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 failed to establish that defendants interfered with a public right or that defendants were in control of the lead pigment they or their predecessors manufactured at the time it caused harm to Rhode Island children. We do not mean to minimize the severity of the harm that thousands of children in Rhode Island have suffered as a result of lead poisoning.
Lead paint was banned by the U.S. government in 1978 after studies showed it caused health problems in children, including learning disabilities and permanent brain damage. But its presence remains widespread, especially in older homes. Rhode Island children routinely test above the national average for blood-lead levels. The paint companies denied that they were directly responsible, saying landlords, not paint makers, should be held accountable for conditions that expose children to lead. A Rhode Island court in 2006 denied punitive damage claims against the paint companies. The Supreme Court ruling has to be considered a major blow for children whose health has been damaged by lead in paint.
Source: Insurance Journal
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