Rhode Island is set to battle the lead paint industry, starting
Wednesday, September 4, in a court case that has states, cities, and school
districts around the country waiting in the wings to follow suit. Since the
1998 tobacco settlement, attorneys general increasingly are taking the lead in
attacking corporate malfeasance, and Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse is the
latest. "We are basically charting new procedural ground here," says
Whitehouse, a candidate for governor.
Like the tobacco suits, Rhode Island's case is built on the idea that paint
manufacturers knew their product was harmful -- "and they marketed it anyway,"
Whitehouse says. But unlike tobacco, the state is out to prove that lead paint
is a public nuisance the state's citizens should not have to bear.
The question, Whitehouse says, is, "Are enough kids hurt, are they hurt badly
enough, and are they being hurt by lead paint? I think we can answer that
question very, very clearly and resoundingly yes."
The state filed the suit in 1999, and after three years of wrangling with
industry lawyers, Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein has approved the
case for trial. If the state clears the public-nuisance legal hurdle -- the
first trial phase, which could last at least eight weeks -- the matter could
proceed to a second phase to determine who is responsible for the nuisance.
Although lead paint was banned nationwide in 1978, more than 80 percent of
local buildings were built before then, and Rhode Island is considered the
nation's lead paint capital. The state says the paint industry should help pay
for the resulting health woes, which include lower IQ, mental retardation,
learning difficulties, behavioral problems, stunted growth, and hearing loss
The industry, on the other hand, says the fault lies with landlords and
"I grew up in a home that had lead paint," says lawyer John Tarantino, who
represents Atlantic Richfield. "Unfortunately . . . there are landlords or
property owners who simply don't care about upkeep, or they don't care about
their tenants. We need to target those bad properties . . . and make sure our
law enforcement officials go after owners who don't have their properties in
The paint industry's position was somewhat inadvertently bolstered by a recent
Brown University study. Researchers found that in the thousands of cases where
children have troubling blood-lead levels, just a small number of landlords
were responsible for housing these children.
But ask Liz Colon, whose young son, Sammy, was hospitalized in 1996 for an
alarming blood-lead level, and she'll tell you the fault should be shared by
many. Sitting in her sunny Smith Hill kitchen, as Sammy shyly talks about the
routine blood tests and treatments he underwent, Colon explains her view of the
upcoming case: "We have established that we have a problem Rhode Island. And
everyone is now sitting at the table to figure out how to fix it. Everybody
except the manufacturers. All we want them to do is to sit at that table."
Issue Date: August 30 - September 5, 2002