Billion dollar cleanup

by David Nieporent on February 27, 2007

Overlawyered has been covering the Rhode Island lead paint trial for quite some time. A year ago last February, a jury found lead paint makers liable (and see links therein); on Monday, a Rhode Island judge issued a 197 page opinion (PDF) rejecting all the motions filed by the manufacturers, and upholding the jury verdict. Associated Press; Providence Journal. There will, of course, be an appeal.

It’s a case which fits well with the theme I mentioned yesterday, with all the elements of litigation as Robin Hood-style wealth redistribution:

  • Creative lawyering, to turn a non-case into a case: this is really a products liability case, but if it had been tried under that theory, the state would have lost. So the plaintiffs called lead paint a “public nuisance,” even though any harms here are identifiably private.

  • Irresponsible victims: The proximate cause of lead-paint-related injuries is the failure of homeowners and landlords to fix peeling paint. But we wouldn’t want to hold people responsible for maintaining their own homes.
  • Going after the deep pockets rather than wrongdoers: Homeowners can’t sue themselves, and landlords don’t have nearly as much money as Sherwin Williams and the other paint manufacturers? So of course the paint manufacturers are liable. Never mind that the paint was perfectly legal when it was sold, sometimes as long as 50 years ago or more. Never mind that the plaintiffs didn’t and couldn’t prove that any of the outstanding problem was caused by any of the defendants.
  • Unlimited liability, unrelated to any money made by the manufacturers for the products in question: the judge hasn’t even figured out how much this cleanup will cost, but he’s nonetheless sure that it’s reasonable to hold that the paint companies should have done this already. Estimates range from a billion dollars to several billion, to clean up any remaining lead paint.
  • Dubious benefit to actual victims: people who have children affected by lead paint aren’t the ones who receive money as a result of this case.
  • Shades of the tobacco cases: private trial lawyers inducing the state to sue, and then then pretending to be acting on behalf of the public.

Of course, we get the obligatory disingenuous comments from the plaintiffs:

Jack McConnell, a lawyer representing the state, called the judge’s decision a “huge, huge victory for lead-poisoned children, homeowners and taxpayers.”

Except, of course, for taxpayers and homeowners who are shareholders in paint companies. Or taxpayers and homeowners who are looking to buy products whose prices will have to rise to cover the costs of lawsuits that may spring up decades down the road because of some unforeseeable risks.

And how it’s a victory “for lead-poisoned children” is a mystery, given that the only outcome of this case is that the paint companies will have to pay for the costs of cleaning up homes. The children who have actually been poisoned do not see a cent from this judgment. Jack McConnell and Motley-Rice, the lawyers “representing the state,” will rake in a few hundred million dollars in contingency fees, though.

Walter Olson also comments at Point of Law.

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“Lawsuits that benefit only lawyers”
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1 Amsterdamsky 02.27.07 at 6:30 am

I challenge anyone to show, using good science, that chronic (non accute) lead poisoning can be traced reliably back to a single source.

2 Joe Bingham 02.27.07 at 7:51 am

According to his bio, he was awarded the “Childhood Lead Action Project’s Above and Beyond the Call of Duty Award”. Apparently the award is given to someone who ostensibly sues on behalf of poisoned children, but not really, and even when there’s no case.

Hopefully he can use that award to massage his aching conscience.

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