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

Understanding the Rhode Island Case

As the other posts indicate, we are very excited about the verdict in the Rhode Island lead paint case. This landmark case surely sets a precedent for other states that choose to file similar suits. It is both an honor and a privilege to be working with Dr. Rosner, a professor from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, because of his important role in the trial and because of his breadth of knowledge on public health issues.
My role in this project is to research the Rhode Island case in particular and to write about the facts of the trial. One interesting point to note is that Rhode Island did not sue the defendants for a specific amount of money. The purpose of the case was to draw attention to the companies’ negligence and to make them clean up the mess they created, not to focus on the amount of money at stake. I have begun my research by searching the local newspaper, The Providence Journal, to create a basic timeline of the case and to track the progress. There were actually two trials, the first ending with a hung jury and the second with Rhode Island’s victory, so I have been researching both cases to understand the differences between them as well as the way each unfolded. The defendants are going to have to pay billions of dollars to clean up the buildings that still contain lead paint, but the judge has yet to determine whether the defendants will also have to pay punitive damages. I believe that the outcome of this case will create higher standards for manufacturers in terms of warning consumers about the potential harm of certain products, so I am very pleased to be able to work on something so important and meaningful to people all across the country.

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

Monday, February 27, 2006

On February 22, 2006 a landmark case was decided in Rhode Island against three lead paint companies. The case determined that three out of four companies being sued by the state of Rhode Island are liable for knowingly poisoning children. Hopefully this case will not be the last of it’s kind. With the help of cases such as this, companies can be held legally responsible for the dangerous products that they produce. Our group is lucky enough to be working with one of the expert historians who testified in the case, Doctor David Rosner.
Our group first met with Dr. Rosner on February 1, when he told us about the history of the case and his involvement in it. Hearing his story was an honor in itself; Rosner is passionate about his work and has inspired our group to begin our own intellectual quest in occupational and environmental health. What began as an exercise in research and questioning has led him to write numerous books on occupational and public health. During our first short meeting, he taught us the importance of historical literature and how his diligent search through documents recovered from industries during the legal process of “discovery” helped him write his book. Rosner led us through the story of the case and gave us some background information that will help us delve into our own search on industrial pollution.
The historical background of industrial pollution is the large umbrella topic that I will be working on. I am excited to continue my research, because what I have so far is already incredibly interesting! Lead based paint was banned in the United States in 1978, after studies showed that it caused brain damage and other serious health problems, especially in young children and fetuses. In the Rhode Island case, Dr. Philip Landrigan, an expert in childhood lead poisoning from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, testified that if a child consumed a paint chip half the size of his fingernail they would be sent into a coma or convulsions ( The Medical Encyclopedia states that 1 in 20 preschoolers have high levels of lead in their blood. But how? How could that be possible if lead paint use was banned since 1978? The problem is that most buildings were constructed prior to that time, and many still have lead paint or lead dust from chipped paint present. In fact, it was not until 1996 that a new law was applied to houses built before 1978 that made the realtor responsible for telling the buyer of the possible danger. Now, sellers and landlords are required to give new buyers a brochure entitled, “Protecting Your Family From Lead in Your Home.”
A brochure? That’s it? Dr. Rosner is correct. Someone needs to start taking responsibility for these deaths of little children. My research into historical articles has shown that the dangers of lead paint were apparent as early as the 1850s. Europe banned the use of lead paint in residences in 1921. The United States was not only fifty years behind; we are almost a century behind. Children are still being poisoned! This case is one step closer to making industry step up and take responsibility for their actions. The verdict in the case shows that they knowingly have sacrificed lives for profit and this is simply unacceptable. I hope that our project will help Dr. Rosner. Our project will give us a better insight to the world of industrial pollution and how responsibility developed over time.


It was a very exciting week for our project. Our project centers around a Rhode Island case concerning the responsibility of the lead paint industry for the health problems that the paint has caused in children. On February 22, the jury reached a verdict and found three former lead paint companies responsible for poisoning thousands of children in Rhode Island. The companies could potentially have to pay millions of dollars in damages, but the excitement surrounding the verdict does not stop there. This case truly is a landmark case and has lead to similar cases in other states. It is likely that the verdict for the Roade Island case will effect the verdicts of similar cases.

Our interest in this project was sparked by Dr. David Rosner, a professor of history and public health at Columbia. Dr. Rosner testified against the lead paint industry and has met with us to discuss his involvement in the case. After meeting with him, our group was motivated to look further into the world of industrial pollution from a historical perspective, a legal perspective, and as it relates to broader environmental and social health issues.

The recent verdict of the Rhode Island case gives our project a positive outlook as we begin our research. It acts as a warning to other industries to raise the standards of their product liability and work harder to protect the environment and health of their consumers. Working on this project, I hope to examine specific industries such as the lead paint industry, the automobile industry, and the prescription drug industry to look at their outlook on their moral responsibilities as major industries. In the research I have done so far it has become clear that the idea of moral responsibility is becoming increasingly more important as we see more and more cases concerning pollution of both the environment and individual health. In my paper I will also aim to look at how the government approaches this idea of moral responsibility and what will be the future of industrial politics.

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