“A Rhode Island jury today found Sherwin-Williams Co. and two other paintmakers guilty of creating a ‘public nuisance’ by manufacturing lead paint after it was found to be dangerous.” If upheld, the verdict will force the companies to contribute millions toward abatement of existing paint; a judge will also consider demands for punitive damages. The ruling, the first of its kind, is also expected to encourage the filing of more suits against the industry; the cities of Chicago and Milwaukee are among those with suits in progress. (Maya R. Payne, “Jury finds against three paintmakers”, Crain’s Cleveland Business, Feb. 22; AP/Boston Globe; Reuters). Blogger Jane Genova has been covering the three-month trial from the scene.
The verdict is an unfortunate confirmation that the “tobacco model” of mass tort litigation remains alive and well. In particular, contingency-fee private counsel have once again managed to 1) dream up a novel idea for litigation based on the idea that some category of public expenditure is really blameable on long-ago sales of a product; 2) sell the idea of suing to public officials who agree to front the action, and who thus provide (along with advocacy groups) a suitably public face for the lawsuit; and 3) manage to get liability attributed retroactively to businesses whose actions decades ago were plainly lawful under the standards of that time. In the Rhode Island case, in particular, the outcome represents the culmination of years of careful groundwork by South Carolina-based asbestos/tobacco powerhouse plaintiff’s firm Motley Rice (earlier Ness Motley), which some years embarked on a strategy of making itself a behind-the-scenes kingmaker in Rhode Island — one of America’s most politically insider-ish, as well as smallest, states. For details on how the Motley firm quickly established itself the number one donor in Rhode Island politics, with special generosity toward officials who could be helpful to its idea for a lead paint suit, see Jun. 7, 2001.