PROVIDENCE, R.I. (CN) – Lead-pigment manufacturers are not liable for creating a public nuisance with products that caused lead poisoning, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled, reversing a judgment for the state attorney general in a landmark civil lawsuit that ended in a four-month trial.
“Our hearts go out to those children whose lives forever have been changed by the poisonous presence of lead,” Chief Justice Williams wrote. “But, however grave the problem of lead poisoning is in Rhode Island, public nuisance law simply does not provide a remedy for this harm.”
In an 83-page decision, justices overturned a verdict holding NL Industries Inc., Millennium Holdings LLC and The Sherman Williams Co. liable under a public nuisance theory. Jurors rendered the verdict after what a local newspaper deemed the longest civil jury trial in the state’s history, based on a 1999 lawsuit filed by the then-attorney general on behalf of the state. The attorney general accused the defendants of poisoning thousands of children and residents by making, promoting and selling lead pigment for use in residential paint, despite knowing that lead is hazardous to human health. Children exposed to high levels of lead can suffer comas, convulsions and even death, the ruling states.
The first trial resulted in a mistrial, but jurors in the second trial awarded the first U.S. verdict holding lead-pigment makers responsible for creating a public nuisance.
Throughout litigation, the trial justice issued 19 written decisions on everything from pretrial motions to post-trial judgments. Some lead-pigment makers appealed the judgment against them, while the state cross-appealed a judgment for Atlantic Richfield Co. and two contempt orders against the attorney general.
The state Supreme Court consolidated the appeals and addressed them in turn. Justices said the verdict improperly placed the burden on lead-pigment makers, who did not interfere with any public rights and were not in control of their products when the lead paint harmed Rhode Island residents.
Because the defendants were not liable in the court’s view, it declined to rule on the issue of compensatory damages. The state wanted the court to award it more than $26 million in damages, claiming the trial justice improperly dismissed its damages claim.
The court similarly declined to address the state’s appeal of the ruling for Atlantic Richfield Co., but reversed the contempt orders against former Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch, who allegedly violated the trial court’s orders by speaking to the press during trial and posting a thank-you note to jurors on his Web site, despite an order not to “discuss” the trial with the jury.
The court found that Lynch’s remarks did not amount to contempt, and the Web site posting could not be considered a “discussion.”
Finally, the court upheld the contingency-fee arrangements between Lynch and outside counsel, rejecting the argument that the payments violate state law as a misappropriation of state funds.