The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution

The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution

"... The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution": Taking Action in a Landmark Case Against the Lead-Paint Industry

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Providence Journal 2/22/06

Jury holds 3 ex-makers of lead paint liable
06:41 PM EST on Wednesday, February 22, 2006
Staff and wire reports

PROVIDENCE -- A jury has decided that three former makers of lead paint created a public nuisance that has poisoned thousands of Rhode Island children, and continues to do so.

In a highly anticipated verdict announced shortly before noon today, the three companies found responsible are Sherwin-Williams, N-L Industries and Millennium Holdings.

The jury found that one of the four companies named in the landmark suit brought by the state -- Atlantic Richfield -- was not responsible.

The verdict means the companies that once made lead paint and pigment could be held responsible for millions of dollars in clean-up and mitigation costs -- though the state never put a dollar value on its lawsuit.

The jury's decision is also important because it could affect similar lawsuits in other states.

The sale of lead paint was banned in 1978 in the United States, after studies showed that it can cause serious health problems in children. But in Rhode Island, which has an old housing stock, lead paint still exists in many homes.
In 1999, Rhode Island became the first state to sue the lead paint industry.

"This is sweet. I am overjoyed," said the state's former attorney general, Sheldon Whitehouse, who brought the original lawsuit that ended with a hung jury in 2002.

Whitehouse, a candidate for Congress, said today's verdict was especially dramatic because the jury first announced the "not responsible" finding for Atlantic Richfield.

Current Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch hailed the verdict as historic and said in a statement that the decision would "help make Rhode Island a safer and better place to live."

Bonnie Campbell, a spokeswoman for the companies and a former attorney general of Iowa, said, "This is but one step in a lengthy process and there are a number of issues still to be decided by the court."

Digital Extra
Look back at The Journal's 2001 series, Poisoned, exploring the state's lead-paint crisis
Learn about the state of Rhode Island's lead-poisoning prevention program
Although the jury said that the three other companies must be held responsible for abatement -- or repairing damages -- they did not award compensatory damages.

Because of that, Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein ordered lawyers to report back to court Monday with their arguments on whether punitive damages should be awarded.

If Silverstein decides they should, the jury will return Tuesday to begin deliberating what those damages should be.

The case went to the six-person jury Monday, Feb. 13, after 15 weeks of trial.

The state contended that the four companies created a public nuisance by marketing the lead-paint pigments that helped poison more than 37,000 Rhode Island children during the last 11 years.

The state also argued the paints remain on more than 240,000 houses and threaten future harm as they deteriorate.

Attorney General Lynch has estimated abatement could cost billions of dollars.

The verdicts had an immediate impact on Wall Street. Sherwin Williams' share price dropped more than 15 percent to $44.47 as of about 1:30 p.m. NL Industries fell 5 percent to $13.64.

The 2002 trial ended in a hung jury after four days of deliberations.

State's lawyers presented historians, doctors and contractors to try to persuade jurors that the companies knew about the hazards and tried to hide them. The paint makers presented no witnesses.

In closing arguments, company lawyers insisted that the state didn't prove a case against any of them. They said the state failed to convincingly place any of their paints on Rhode Island buildings and that there is no public nuisance in Rhode Island because childhood blood-lead levels have declined so dramatically.

In closing arguments, defendants argued that the entire time they sold lead-based paints it was legal, but Judge Silverstein swept aside that defense.

"The fact that the conduct which caused the nuisance is lawful, does not preclude liability," Silverstein said.

A large part of the state's evidence focused on an industry group called the Lead Industries Association that heavily promoted the use of lead paint while campaigning to cover up reports of lead-poisoned children.

Silverstein reinforced a previous ruling he made that favored the defendants by telling the jury that "mere membership in a trade association is not sufficient to impose liability on any defendant."

-- With reports from the Associated Press and Journal staff writers Paul Edward Parker and Peter B. Lord


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