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Paint Makers Liable for Cleanup, R.I. Jury Says

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Paint Makers Liable for Cleanup, R.I. Jury Says

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Paint Makers Liable for Cleanup, R.I. Jury Says

Paint Makers Liable for Cleanup, R.I. Jury Says

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A jury in Rhode Island decides that three companies formerly in the lead-paint business created a public nuisance and can be held responsible for cleanup costs. It's one of several lawsuits against the lead-paint industry, but the first to succeed.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

There was a landmark verdict against the lead paint industry today. A jury in Rhode Island decided that three former makers of lead pigment have created a public nuisance and should have to pay for cleanup. The state says more than 1000 children are still poisoned by lead paint in their old homes each year and manufacturers should be held accountable. This case is one of several against the lead paint industry, but it's the first to succeed. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH, reporting:

Rhode Island has been called by some the lead paint capital of the nation. Even though lead paint was banned nationwide in 1978 because of health risks to children, there are hundreds of thousands of old homes in Rhode Island that still contain lead paint and officials say kids are still getting poisoned. More than 35,000, they say, in the past 10 years. The state says lead pigment manufacturers continued to sell their products for decades after they knew how dangerous it was. And Attorney General Patrick Lynch says it's only right that those who made the mess should have to clean it up.

Mr. PATRICK LYNCH (Attorney General): This is an enormous victory for kids, this is an enormous victory for the taxpayers. And I think a big victory, you know, and just in terms of fundamental fairness for the little guy.

SMITH: While jurors found one defendant, the Atlantic Richfield Company, not responsible they decided against the other three. Sherwin Williams, NL Industries and Millennium Holdings. The state has estimated the cost of cleanup in the billions of dollars. How much the companies will actually have to pay is up to the judge and the jury could also impose punitive damages next week. As long as those issues are still pending the companies declined to comment on today's verdict, except to say they will defend themselves vigorously, and they believe the facts are on their side.

But industry officials and legal experts say the decision is an important turning point. Rhode Island is the first to win a case against lead paint makers using the theory that they create a public nuisance. And University of Maryland law professor Don Gifford says that today's win will give a big boost to other cases against lead paint and against other products as well.

Mr. DON GIFFORD (Law Professor, University of Maryland): All the gates to claims against product manufacturers have just been torn down. You've now dramatically expanded the opportunities for victims to recover.

SMITH: For example, Gifford says, in public nuisance cases it's easier to get around statutes of limitations. And while the paint companies argued it wasn't necessarily their paint that caused any injury, Gifford says that doesn't matter in a case of public nuisance.

Mr. GIFFORD: You're basically saying as long as somebody has experienced a harm, even if they can't trace them back, if they can trace it back to a group of people they can sue that whole group of people without specifically identifying the party that injured them.

SMITH: On news of today's verdict Sherwin Williams stock plummeted nearly 20 percent and the industry may get hit even harder. The lawyers who brought the lead paint case in Rhode Island are the same ones who sued and got a settlement from the tobacco industry and now other states are interested in bringing their own lead paint suits. But Harvard law professor David Rosenberg says that may not be good public policy.

Mr. DAVID ROSENBERG (Law Professor, Harvard): You have to be skeptical. There is a sense of milking that sometimes could lead to the state blindsiding an industry, which is what might be happening here.

SMITH: Rhode Island first brought this case seven years ago. A first trial ended in a hung jury. This one took four months of trial and more than a week of deliberations and it's not over yet. An appeal is likely. Sylvia Smith, NPR News.

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