Over the last 25 years, public agencies across the country have failed at least 50 times to convince courts that paint manufacturers should have to foot the bill for removing lead-based paint from homes built before the federal government banned that product in 1987. But they finally succeeded last week, when a state court judge in California ordered three paint companies to pay $1.1 billion to 10 cities and counties in the state — including Los Angeles County and the City of San Francisco — to help them remove lead from 5 million homes. In previous lawsuits, the paint industry had successfully argued, among other things, that a homeowner's lead poisoning could have been caused by lead in water, jewelry or toys rather than lead in paint or that paint manufacturers had never intentionally sold an unsafe product. But Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg didn't buy those arguments, ruling that ConAgra Grocery Products Co., NL Industries Inc. and the Sherwin-Williams Co. sold paint they knew was harmful by the 1920s and even earlier. "In the 1920s, scientists from the Paint Manufacturers Association reported that lead paint used on the interiors of homes would deteriorate, and that lead dust resulting from this deterioration would poison children and cause serious injury," Kleinberg wrote in his 110-page decision. "It was accepted by the medical and scientific community before the 1950s, as reflected in literature from as early as 1894, that lead paint was a significant cause of childhood lead poisoning." The judge also cited a Sherwin-Williams newsletter from 1900 affirming that lead-based paint was a "deadly cumulative poison" and an advertisement from the company in 1922 claiming its paint was safe. Although last week's ruling was only preliminary, it could spur similar lawsuits in other states. "The California ruling is certainly a significant development," said David Logan, dean of Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island. "If it gets upheld, it will open a new path to victory for public agencies." Lisa Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Legal Reform, however, saw the ruling a little differently. She predicted it would lead to "a surge of frivolous lawsuits," and she also said the industry planned to appeal it. With Kleinberg's decision having come 13 years after the original lawsuit was filed, it could be years before that appeals process reaches its conclusion. (SACRAMENTO BEE)
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