Lynch lashes out at Court over lead paint decision

John O'Brien Jul. 1, 2008, 3:00pm


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Legal Newsline) - Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch certainly wasn't at a loss for words Tuesday following the rejection of his public nuisance suit against the former manufacturers of lead-based paint.

A unanimous decision overturned a 2006 Superior Court jury's assessment that three companies - Sherwin-Williams, NL Industries and Millennium Holdings - were liable for creating a public nuisance because they made lead paint before it was outlawed in 1978.

Lynch said the lengthy fight was always about children, taxpayers and public health.

"Those products poisoned our infants and children - and continue to poison our infants and children - while bringing great profits to the companies that made and sold them," Lynch said.

"Today, the Supreme Court ruled that these defendants do not have to clean up the mess they have made. I find this legally and fundamentally wrong."

Lead paint was outlawed in 1978, and plaintiffs firm Motley Rice convinced former Rhode Island Attorney General Shelden Whitehouse to hire it on a contingency fee to bring the first state-backed case over the issue in 1999.

An attorney at Motley Rice thought of bringing a claim of public nuisance to work around certain defenses, like the tolled statute of limitations.

The first trial resulted in a mistrial, the second (filed by Lynch) in a 2006 verdict against the three companies. It was the longest civil trial in state history.

After the mistrial and while Whitehouse prepared to leave office in 2002, Motley Rice's Jack McConnell, of the firm's Providence office, contributed $1,000 to Lynch's election efforts.

In Lynch's next campaign, McConnell gave him $2,000. In between, in Lynch's non-election year of 2004, McConnell still gave him $2,000.

Had the verdict been upheld, the companies may have been forced to pay for Lynch's proposed $2.4 billion abatement plan.

Similar suits have failed in Wisconsin, Missouri and New Jersey and are pending in Ohio and California.

Lynch said more attorneys, staff and resources were dedicated to the case than any other in state history.

"We met every legal challenge from Corporate America's defense counsel and we survived their every attack to secure victory from a jury of our peers," Lynch said.

"I believed then, believe now and will always believe that our peers got it right."

Lynch added that the decision will affect every child who will be poisoned by lead in the future. Recent statistics show that lead poisoning is at a new low in the state.

"This reversal is enormously disappointing, and I disagree with it in the strongest terms," Lynch said.

From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at

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