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

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The case could have easily gone the other way

Rhode Island’s case against the country’s largest paint manufacturers has been an extremely controversial case that is a landmark for a variety of reasons. After reading an article published in The New York Times today, April 2, there have been many thoughts stirring in my head about the effects that this case will have beyond the paint companies. In this entry I have chosen to basically sum up the issues that the article presents, in an effort to show the magnitude of each of the case’s elements. The article can be found on the New York Times website:
The case has created controversy because the companies have not sold lead paint for over thirty years and the state did not explicitly prove that paint that these specific companies manufactured was used on the walls of Rhode Island houses. Although, it is important to note that the companies manufactured 80 percent of the paint in the country. One of the jurors stated that this fact would not have had such an effect if the companies simply stated that the number was not correct. However, in not offering any witnesses, they did not effectively rebut any of the state’s arguments. The lead poisoning crisis that the state has faced for many years seems to be diminishing, as the incidence of lead poisoning in children is declining. There is also a significant debate taking place over the state’s contracting its public health and public nuisance case out to a private law firm that tried the case for free but will take a percentage of any recoveries. The defense challenged this and the issue has yet to be resolved.
The factor distinguishing this case from others against the lead paint companies is that in this case, the state argued that the paint created a public nuisance, as opposed to other cases that argued that the companies violated product liability laws. This is significant because product liability lawsuits are limited to a certain time frame since the product was manufactured and require the plaintiff to specifically identify the manufacturer of the product. In these cases, the companies were successful by arguing that they had not made lead paint in 4 or 5 decades and that it was not possible to differentiate between each company’s paint. The public nuisance allegation put a new spin on the case because no other lawsuit against the companies had used this claim. This avoided the time limit problem because the paint is still creating a nuisance, which is defined as something that interferes in an unreasonable way with the public right. Because the state was arguing that the paint was interfering with the public right, it did not have to tie a specific company to a specific house or case of lead poisoning. The issue of product liability was dismissed in this case, just like all the others, so the issue of public nuisance was the only argument that proved to have any merit.
The defense criticized DuPont, who agreed to donate 12 million dollars to nonprofit organizations in exchange for the state dropping its suit against the company because it makes the company appear vulnerable so that other parties will sue thinking they can obtain such an agreement. If the defense had presented witnesses supporting its arguments, or at least challenging the state’s witnesses’ arguments, then it might have been more successful. Instead, the companies stuck to an argument that the state’s witnesses validly and clearly disproved, paving the way for the state’s win. I am extremely glad that the state was able to win this case, but it is important to note how easily the jury could have found for the defense.


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