On Tuesday, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that a state lawsuit against lead paint manufacturers should be dismissed. The court overturned a 2006 jury verdict that required manufacturers of the toxic paint to clean up contaminated Rhode Island homes built before the paint was banned, at an estimated cost of $2.4 billion.
The Rhode Island Attorney General, Patrick Lynch, filed the lawsuit in 1999 against Sherman-Williams Co., NL Industries, Inc. and Millennium Holdings, LLC. The lawsuit alleged that the companies created a public nuisance by making and selling lead paint when they knew it was unsafe.
The state was attempting to force the companies to inspect and clean thousands of Rhode Island homes built before 1980 which contain lead paint. This was the first state lawsuit where a verdict was obtained against makers of lead paint, but other cases are still pending in Ohio and California.
In a unanimous decision, the Rhode Island Supreme Court found that the state’s lawsuit should have been dismissed, stating that the Rhode Island public nuisance law does not provide a remedy for the poisonous presence of lead in homes in the state.
Before it was banned in 1978, lead pigment was commonly added to paint to help speed drying, increase durability and improve the quality of the paint. Although it has been thirty years since lead paint was widely used, it remains present in millions of older homes throughout the United States.
The paint was banned because it can cause lead poisoning, potentially leading to severe developmental and cognitive problems if it is ingested, inhaled or absorbed in any way. Elevated lead blood levels have been linked to brain damage, injury to the nervous system, seizures, growth and mental retardation.
Individual lawsuits filed on behalf of children who suffer lead poisoning are often against landlords and property managers who failed to adequately maintain their properties or contain the lead paint to prevent it from flaking. Attempts to file lead paint lawsuits against the manufacturers of the paint and lead pigment have been widely unsuccessful, due to an inability to establish that a particular company’s paint poisoned a particular child or was used in a certain home.