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POL COLUMNS « The Massacre of Innocence | Could less rigid privacy laws have prevented the Virginia tragedy? »

October 01, 2007


Courts thin out lead paint lawsuits

By Jim Copland

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner, 09-19-07.

This summer, government-sponsored lawsuits alleging that paint manufacturers created a "public nuisance" by making paint with lead pigment in or before 1978 met stinging courtroom defeats in major decisions by the Missouri, New Jersey and Ohio supreme courts, as well as a jury verdict in Wisconsin.

These adverse rulings marked a major reversal of fortune for the litigation industry, which viewed such suits as a potential heir to the litigation industry's multibillion-dollar asbestos and tobacco business lines after a Rhode Island jury had ruled in 2006 that paint companies had to shoulder that state's lead paint "abatement costs," estimated to be as much as $3 billion.

While nominally filed on behalf of states and municipalities, the lead paint suits are the fruit of deals trial lawyers cut with government officials, who gave the private lawyers control of state litigation for a share of any proceeds. The lawyers' strategy has mirrored what they used in extracting billions from the tobacco suits to recoup states' health care expenses—unsurprisingly, since the lead paint litigation involves the same lawyers...

Enriching big political donors with the state's multibillion-dollar contingency-fee litigation clearly has the potential for corruption...

But the problems with public lead paint litigation run far deeper. Although lead poisoning is undoubtedly harmful, lead paint litigation has been burgeoning even as the risk has been approaching the nonexistent. Lead paint has been banned since 1978, and paint companies voluntarily limited lead for indoor paint as early as 1955.

That fact, in addition to reductions of lead in drinking water and the elimination of leaded gasoline, has caused a sharp drop in lead-exposure levels. Only 1.6 percent of young children are today exposed to lead levels above the Centers for Disease Control's current threshold, down from 7.6 percent in 1997 and a 98 percent reduction from the late 1970s.

Read the full report, "Judicial Lead-ership," on triallawyersinc.com.

Jim Copland is the director of the Center for Legal Policy at the Manhattan Institute.

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Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.