Finally, Lead Paint Poisoners Being Brought to Justice

Citizen Wealth Financial Justice

lead-paint-poisoning-02New Orleans   Having been part of a multi-year, ultimately unsuccessful campaign to force Sherwin-Williams to mitigate the damage its production of lead paint had done to low-and-moderate income communities and tens of thousands of innocent children who were poisoned by the company, I had followed closely the litigation against Sherwin-Williams, NL Industries, and ConAgra seeking some justice, no matter how delayed.   News that the companies had finally dropped their appeal on a losing decision in California on April Fools’ Day forced me to look twice to make sure this was the real deal.

            You haven’t heard much about this suit and for sure it was not reported in any of your daily papers, but this is potentially huge.  So, here’s the story so you can catch up quickly.  

            Ten California cities including Los Angeles and San Diego among others sued a bunch of the original lead paint manufacturers for more than a billion dollars for continuing cases involving lead paint damage for children and others.   The California legislature determined that there were 3.5 million homes within the ten cities built before 1978, when lead paint was banned.  Furthermore evidence established that the companies have known there were dangers from lead paint poisoning since the 1930’s, so there were no virgins in the courtroom.  The cases are all brought forward based on the argument that the threat of lead poisoning to children qualifies as a “public nuisance.”  In California, the cities were looking for $1.3 billion for inspections and remediation. 

The companies felt they were on a winning streak having beaten back similar challenges in seven states earlier where cases were either dismissed or rejected in Ohio, Rhode Island, Missouri, New Jersey, Illinois, New York, and Wisconsin.  In December of 2013, a California Superior Court Judge Kleinberg ruled in San Jose.  He let a couple of companies off the hook like Dupont and ARCO for example based on the fact that they didn’t seem to have promoted lead paint in these specific cities, but rejected the overall defense as little more than statistics and assessed a $1.1 billion price tag on what the remaining companies would have to pony up.  Los Angeles would be the biggest winner, collecting over $600 million of the settlement.

The companies at the time circled the wagons as they always have done in the past, all of which made their surrender in April and waving the white flag all the more shocking, so hip-hip-hooray for California and relief is on the way for children there.

Why did they not appeal?  They didn’t suddenly get religion.  It looks more like the fact that analysts were hammering the stock prices for the companies, depressing their value, as long as the suit hung fire, which with an appeal could have been years.  Essentially, it looks to me like they simply swallowed a bitter billion dollar pill figuring it would go down more smoothly than multi-billion dollar losses for the total value of their companies while the litigation was pending.

But, what about the rest of the country?  The companies undoubtedly are hoping that this defeat is suffered in silence.  Hopefully, desperate victims and hungry lawyers can smell either justice or money in the air and saddle up to take on the fight in earnest once again.

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