R.I. court overturns lead paint verdict

Rhode Island's Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a first-in-the-nation jury verdict that found three former lead paint companies responsible for creating a public nuisance, rejecting a closely watched case that had been seen as a bellwether for potential lawsuits across the country.

The 4-0 decision ends the nearly decade-long court fight and spares the companies from potentially billions in cleanup costs for hundreds of thousands of contaminated homes.

Rhode Island was the first state to successfully sue former makers of lead pigment and paint, which can cause learning disabilities, brain damage and other health problems in children. A jury in 2006 found Sherwin-Williams, NL Industries and Millennium Holdings liable for creating a public nuisance by manufacturing a toxic product.

The state had proposed that the companies spend $2.4billion inspecting and cleaning hundreds of thousands of Rhode Island homes believed to contain lead paint.

The ruling was immediately denounced by groups supporting punitive action against paint companies.

“A lot of hopes were pinned on Rhode Island,” said Ralph Scott, community projects director of the Alliance for Healthy Homes, a Washington advocacy group.

Attorney General Patrick Lynch said he was disappointed the case was over.

“We fought this, and we're essentially at the end,” Lynch said. “Our fight now is, ‘What do we do as a state to deal with the problem the lead companies have escaped from?'”

The court, however, said the state's lawsuit should have been dismissed at the outset. It said that while lead paint may be a public health problem, it was not the companies' responsibility to clean it up because they, unlike landlords and homeowners, had no control over how the paint was used or whether it was used in properties where children were poisoned.

“Our hearts go out to those children whose lives forever have been changed by the poisonous presence of lead,” Chief Justice Frank Williams wrote in the opinion. “But, however grave the problem of lead poisoning is in Rhode Island, public nuisance law simply does not provide a remedy for this harm.”

Lawsuits over lead paint have failed to live up to early hopes that they would mirror the success that states had in the 1990s with suits against the tobacco industry, which ultimately resulted in billions worth of settlements. Unlike tobacco, lead-based paint has not been sold for decades. The federal government banned it from residential use in 1978.

It has been virtually impossible to determine which company's paint poisoned an individual child or was used in a certain home, and the companies said the state never presented any evidence that their products were used in any Rhode Island home or had even been sold in the state.