Rhode Island Judge: Lead Paint Companies Owed Restitution

January 28, 2009

The state of Rhode Island must reimburse more than $242,000 to three companies that succeeded in overturning a jury verdict that could have forced them to spend billions of dollars cleaning up homes contaminated by lead paint, a judge has ruled.

In his ruling, Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein said Sherwin-Williams Co., Millennium Holdings LLC and NL Industries should not have to pay for two public health experts used in the lawsuit now that the case has ended in their favor.

“The entire foundation for the defendants’ liability in this case is based on a jury verdict that has been reversed by the Rhode Island Supreme Court,” the judge wrote.

The companies also are trying to recover additional money spent on the nine-year-old court fight, such as for depositions and filing fees, but have not said how much else they are seeking. The state earlier submitted a bill for $1.9 million.

Rhode Island was the first state to win a lawsuit against the lead paint industry, when a jury in February 2006 found the three companies liable for creating a public nuisance by manufacturing lead pigment used in paint.

After the verdict, the state drafted a sweeping $2.4 billion proposal that called for the companies to clean lead paint contamination from an estimated 240,000 older homes.

But the state Supreme Court reversed the verdict in July before any cleanup could begin, saying the companies no longer had control over their products and could not be responsible for the health harms they caused.

The money ordered reimbursed to the companies was paid to two public health experts who were hired in 2007 to evaluate the state’s proposal for cleaning up the homes.

“This type of public nuisance litigation is not cost free,” Charles Moellenberg Jr., a lawyer for Sherwin-Williams, said Thursday.

“Any state or city that thinks about filing a public nuisance lawsuit of this type should expect to pay litigation expenses if they lose at the end of the day,” he added.

A spokesman for state Attorney General Patrick Lynch said the office had no immediate comment.

Silverstein did not determine whether the state or the private law firm it hired to help try the lawsuit on a contingency-fee basis, Motley Rice LLC, would be responsible for the experts’ cost. Motley Rice had agreed to bear “all costs and expenses of prosecuting” the case.

Jack McConnell, a Motley Rice partner who tried the case, declined to comment.

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