Sorrell settles lead lawsuit with landlords

By John O'Brien | Oct 12, 2007

MONTPELIER, Vt. - Instead of a lawsuit against paint companies, Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell decided to hold a pair of landlords responsible for the lead paint that remains on their buildings.

Douglas and Vivian Spates, of Newport, will spend at least $150,000 replacing windows and other friction surfaces that create lead dust and will pay another $15,000 to state housing programs as the result of a settlement reached Thursday with Sorrell.

Sorrell says the Spateses did not following rules requiring maintenance of rental housing in the city.

"Lead harms all Vermonters, particularly young children and pregnant women," Sorrell said. "Many people are unaware that low levels of lead poisoning in these vulnerable groups can cause reductions in IQ and have been associated with school failure, delinquency and criminal behavior."

Lead paint has been a hot legal issue, especially this year. The Supreme Courts of four states heard cases involving the use of a public nuisance claim against paint companies as a way of working around the companies' products liability defenses, like the now tolled statute of limitations.

Paint companies stopped making lead paint when it was outlawed in 1978. Those companies argue that landlords should be responsible for the abatement of lead paint off buildings.

In August, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled the veto of a tort reform bill invalid, apparently ending Attorney General Marc Dann's plan for a nuisance claim against paint companies.

The case was the latest in a growing line of successes for the paint industry, which has already picked up wins in New Jersey, Missouri and Wisconsin.

Plaintiffs firm Motley Rice is credited with the idea of using a public nuisance claim in these cases. It has had success in Rhode Island, where a jury found three companies liable in the first state-backed lawsuit against the companies, Millennium Holdings, NL Industries and Sherwin Williams. The companies' appeal is currently before the state Supreme Court.

Sorrell, meanwhile, also reached a settlement with painting contractors Herb and Karen Thayer. They agreed to adopt lead safe work practices or face a $10,000 penalty. Sorrell says they did not do so when they prepared older an older Montpelier apartment building to be painted.

The settlement is signed by Orleans Superior Court Judge Robert Bent. Of the $15,000 the Spateses will pay for state housing programs, $5,000 goes to the State for civil penalties.

"We are especially pleased that these landlords are going beyond the essential maintenance practices required by Vermont law, and are putting substantial resources into eliminating or reducing exposure to lead-based paint," Sorrell said.

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