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Lead paint companies appeal Rhode Island verdict

May 16, 2008
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According to the Associated Press, three companies that once produced lead paint and were found liable for creating a public nuisance argued before Rhode Island''s highest court recently that the verdict should be overturned.

The state never proved the toxic products produced by the companies ended up in the homes of Rhode Islanders, argued lawyers for Sherwin-Williams Co., NL Industries Inc. and Millennium Holdings LLC. The companies are appealing a 2006 verdict that found them liable in the first-ever jury ruling against the industry.

The state has proposed the companies pay for an estimated $2.4 billion cleanup of hundreds of thousands of Rhode Island homes believed to contain lead paint.

Industry lawyers told the state Supreme Court they were being held responsible for a product that was pulled off the market decades ago, and that state law already holds landlords and homeowners responsible for cleaning up lead paint. They said the state was allowed to argue the overall presence of lead paint in homes creates a public nuisance without identifying any of the company''s products in particular homes.

Jack McConnell, a lawyer for the state, said the state did not have to prove a direct link between any specific property and a company''s paint. But he said the state did show the companies had aggressively marketed and sold their lead products across the country, including in Rhode Island.

The Supreme Court expects to rule by July.

Lead paint was banned for residential uses in 1978 because children who eat paint chips or inhale lead paint dust can develop learning disabilities or brain damage.

The justices challenged state lawyers on whether the companies should be held responsible for problems that occur well after their product has been sold, including a negligent landlord who allows the paint to deteriorate and endanger tenants.

Justice William Robinson said he wondered if the companies'' role in the problem was too far removed from the conditions in homes today.

But lawyers for the state argued the companies, which manufactured toxic lead pigment that was used in paint to make it last longer, had created the problem and were the only links in the chain that had done nothing to solve it - unlike homeowners, landlords, taxpayers and government. The state says tens of thousands of children have been poisoned by lead in the last decade and that at least 240,000 homes in Rhode Island contain lead paint.

Rhode Island in 1999 became the first state to sue the industry.

The state says its $2.4 billion cleanup plan, currently being challenged separately by the companies, calls for removing or permanently enclosing building components tainted by lead from about 240,000 homes built before 1980. The plan is being reviewed by outside public health experts, who will recommend to the court how to clean up the problem.
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