Action News vol 9 no 1, August, 2008, Revised
Version February, 2012, ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News ( ISSN 1440-0561)
The Journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.
Editor-in-Chief: Tony Lennon
Landmark Lead Verdict Overturned
Rhode Island’s Supreme Court on 1 July 2008 handed down its decision in the long running lead paint case. In a unanimous judgment, the justices overturned a billion dollar jury verdict against paint companies.
Back in February 2006, a jury of six Rhode Islanders found three paint companies liable for creating a public nuisance by making and selling lead-based paints. Rhode Island became the first jurisdiction in the United States to successfully sue paint companies for contaminating its citizens with lead paint. The jury agreed that the companies, by manufacturing the paint, had created a public nuisance which they now had to abate. The jury found that the lead paint manufactured by the companies had poisoned thousands of children. The jury ordered the three paint companies to clean up thousands of premises which were painted with lead paint generations ago. The cost of cleaning up the 240,000 homes is estimated to be in excess of two billion dollars.
The paint companies appealed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. In May this year the appeal came before the court. The Justices questioned lawyers for the respondent state as to whether the companies should be held liable for contamination which occurred years after they manufactured the lead paint and which may have been caused by negligent landlords. It was also argued that the State of Rhode Island now requires landlords and home owners to decontaminate their lead painted premises. Dr K. Nicholas Tsiongas, President of the Rhode Island Medical Society, said that lead has been the most “pervasive, insidious and offensive source of environment poisoning in the history of the United States and of Rhode Island.” Dr Tsiongas added that “There isn’t enough ink to overturn that truth”.
Unfortunately, the four Justices of the Supreme Court disagreed and said that the State of Rhode Island law suit should have been dismissed at first instance. They said that lead contamination, while a public health issue could not be sheeted home to the paint companies who stopped selling the product in 1978. Chief Justice Frank Williams in his judgment said “Our hearts go out to those children whose lives forever have been changed by the poisonous presence of lead…….But, however grave the problem of lead poisoning is in Rhode Island, public nuisance law simply does not provide a remedy for this harm”.
However, as Santa Clara County Counsel, Ann Ravel, has pointed out, the laws in each state of America are different and the courts in her state of California are not bound by a decision of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Ravel went on to say that although the “Rhode Island decision is disappointing, our case is based on California law. Our court does not have to follow the reasoning of that court (Rhode Island Supreme Court) in its determination.” See image (by Mary Murphy) of children holding up a forty foot protest banner outside the Rhode Island Supreme Court. On the banner are hundreds of colourful children’s handprints around the words: ‘614 children lead poisoned in RI in 2007 – Childhood Lead Action Project’.
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Updated 15 February 2012
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