Judge Declines to Declare Mistrial in R.I. Lead Paint Case

A Rhode Island judge in a Providence courtroom called a prosecutor’s question to a witness prejudicial and irrelevant, but refused on this week to declare a mistrial in the state’s lawsuit against the companies that made lead-based paint.

Instead, Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein said he would instruct the jury to disregard the question that Assistant Attorney General Neil Kelly had posed a day earlier to a witness: had the companies ever been required to help the state pay the costs of its lead-paint problem.

Lawyers for the former makers of lead paint and pigment had sought a mistrial because they considered the question inappropriate. They contend the question makes the assumption that the companies had a financial requirement to help the state pay the costs of its lead paint problem and that it tainted the jury.

Much of the proceedings on Wednesday were consumed with arguments before the judge about whether a mistrial should be declared.

On Tuesday, Kelly asked former state Health Director Patricia Nolan, who was on the stand, if any of the companies had contributed funding or other support to state programs that address lead poisoning.

The judge did not allow Nolan to answer.

:The jury has been poisoned, and there is no antidote,” John Tarantino, a lawyer for Atlantic Richfield Co., one of the companies in the case, argued.

But Fidelma Fitzpatrick, a lawyer for the state, had urged the judge to let the trial continue.

“Evidence that is bad for the defendants is not prejudicial evidence,” Fitzpatrick said.

Rhode Island became the first state to sue the lead paint industry in 1999 under then-Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse.

The state alleges that the presence of lead-based paint creates a public nuisance and is asking a jury to hold the former manufacturers liable for the problem.

Beside Atlantic Richfield, the state also has sued Sherwin-Williams Co. and NL Industries Inc.