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Law School Case Brief

State v. Lead Indus. Ass'n - 951 A.2d 428 (R.I. 2008)

Rule:

A necessary element of public nuisance is an interference with a public right--those indivisible resources shared by the public at large, such as air, water, or public rights of way. The interference must deprive all members of the community of a right to some resource to which they otherwise are entitled.

Facts:

In this landmark lawsuit, filed in 1999, the then Attorney General, on behalf of the State of Rhode Island (the state), filed suit against various former lead pigment manufacturers NL Industries, Inc. (NL), Sherwin-Williams Co. (Sherwin-Williams), and Millennium Holdings LLC (Millennium), and the Lead Industries Association (LIA), a national trade association of lead producers formed in 1928. The state alleged that the manufacturers or their predecessors-in-interest had manufactured, promoted, distributed, and sold lead pigment for use in residential paint, despite that they knew or should have known, since the early 1900s, that lead was hazardous to human health.

A jury found defendant manufacturers liable under a public nuisance theory. The defendants filed an appeal from the judgment entered against them. Court consolidated all the appeals filed with this Court and established a five-track procedure for the briefing of all pending appeals and cross-appeals. The five tracks are: (1) the individual liability appeals of defendants, Millennium, NL, and Sherwin-Williams, from the judgment of abatement in favor of the state; (2) the state's cross-appeal on the issue of compensatory damages; (3) the state's appeal from the judgment in favor of ARCO and ARCO's conditional cross-appeal; (4) the state and the Attorney General's appeal of contempt orders entered in December 2005 and June 2006 against the state Attorney General; and (5) the issue of the propriety of the state's entering into a contingency fee agreement with private counsel to prosecute the public nuisance action, which was the issue before the Court pursuant to its issuance of a writ of certiorari.

The defendants contend that the public nuisance claim should have been dismissed at the outset or, at the very least, that judgment as a matter of law should have been entered in their favor because suppliers of lead pigment cannot be held liable under a public nuisance theory for harm resulting from lead-based paint in Rhode Island. They argue that the trial justice erred when he instructed the jury on the law of public nuisance.

Issue:

Did the presence of lead paint constitute a public nuisance?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Court agreed with defendant manufacturers that the public nuisance claim should have been dismissed at the outset because the state had not alleged that defendants' conduct interfered with a public right or that defendants were in control of lead pigment at the time it caused harm to children in Rhode Island. The Court reached this conclusion with a keen realization of how limited the judicial system often was.

Under Rhode Island law, a complaint for public nuisance minimally must allege: (1) an unreasonable interference; (2) with a right common to the general public; (3) by a person or people with control over the instrumentality alleged to have created the  nuisance when the damage occurred; and (4) causation. Even considering the allegations of fact as set forth in the complaint, the Court could not ascertain which allegations supported each of the elements. The state's complaint alleged simply that “defendants created an environmental hazard that continues and will continue to unreasonably interfere with the health, safety, peace, comfort or convenience of the residents of the state, thereby constituting a public nuisance." Absent from the state's complaint was any allegation that defendants have interfered with a public right as that term long has been understood in the law of public nuisance. Equally problematic is the absence of any allegation that defendants had control over the lead pigment at the time it caused harm to children.

A necessary element of public nuisance is an interference with a public right--those indivisible resources shared by the public at large, such as air, water, or public rights of way. Although the state asserted that the public's right to be free from the hazards of unabated lead had been infringed, this contention fell far short of alleging an interference with a public right as that term traditionally has been understood in the law of public nuisance.

The Court concluded therefore, that there was no set of facts alleged in the state's complaint that, even if proven, could have demonstrated that defendants' conduct, however unreasonable, interfered with a public right or that defendants had control over the product causing the alleged nuisance at the time children were injured. Accordingly, there was no need to decide whether defendants' conduct was unreasonable or whether defendants caused an injury to children in Rhode Island.

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