MAC: Mines and Communities

Landmark US Lead Paint Suit Finds Companies Liable

Published by MAC on 2006-02-23

Landmark US Lead Paint Suit Finds Companies Liable


23rd February 2006

Three former lead paint makers were found liable Wednesday for poisoning thousands of children in Rhode Island in a landmark lawsuit that could trigger a wave of litigation against the industry.

The verdict, which could force the companies to pay millions of dollars in clean-up costs and mitigation, battered stock prices of the two publicly traded companies and could prompt other states, counties and cities to file similar lawsuits.

The Rhode Island Superior Court jury sided with prosecutors who accused paint manufacturers of covering up the risk of lead paint, especially to children, in their lawsuit filed in 1999, the first by a state to hold the paint industry responsible.

"This is an enormous victory for the more than 30,000 children poisoned by lead paint in Rhode Island," Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch told Reuters after the decision.

Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein ordered attorneys from both sides to report to court on Monday to make their arguments on whether punitive damages should be awarded.

If Silverstein does not dismiss the punitive damage claims, the jury will return Tuesday for deliberations on damages, said Lisa Dinerman, a spokeswoman at the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

At a minimum, costs could be into the millions to put a fresh barrier coat of paint over any chipping lead paint, while total removal of the paint followed by a fresh coat would be far greater, according to industry estimates.

The companies found liable are Sherwin-Williams Co. , NL Industries Inc. and Millennium Holdings LLC. A fourth defendant, Atlantic Richfield, was not found responsible, according to court officials. Shares in Sherwin-Williams, maker of Dutch Boy, Krylon and Duron paints, slid 17.8 percent on the verdict. NL Industries Inc. lost 8 percent.

The cities of Chicago, Milwaukee, San Francisco and St. Louis have also filed suits against former lead paint makers.


Lead paint was banned by the federal government in 1978 after studies showed it caused health problems in children, including learning disabilities and permanent brain damage.

But it remains widespread, especially in older homes in the northeastern United States. Rhode Island children routinely test above the national average for blood-lead levels.

"I'm ecstatic. I was worried that it was going to go the other way," said Srey Pen, whose 5-year-old son Christian suffered from lead poisoning in 2004 while living in a house in the state capital Providence. "This makes me really happy that something is finally going to get done."

In the two years since her son was diagnosed with lead poisoning, Christian has been expelled from both a day care program and kindergarten for disrupting class and becoming violent with teachers and other children, Pen said.

Paint companies have denied they are directly responsible for the chipping of lead paint, saying landlords, not the companies, should be held accountable for conditions that expose children to lead. Cleveland-based Sherwin-Williams said the court still must rule on remaining issues before the next steps in the legal process can be determined. "We continue to believe that the facts and the law are on our side," the company said.

Lawyers said they expected the verdict to prompt similar lawsuits across the country, similar to the blizzard against the tobacco and gun industries.

"It really is an historic day," said Alan Mensh, an attorney with Ashcraft & Gerel in Baltimore. "Because of this finding, I would assume that there would be additional cases," he added. (Additional reporting by David Brinkerhoff in New York and Karen
Jacobs in Atlanta)

Story by David Ortiz

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