SCOTUS Lead Paint Ruling Could Open Door to Corporate Liability for Climate, Gun Violence, and Opioid Crises

“Like the lead paint case, we have an industry that knew its products could inflict serious damage and continued to promote those products anyway,” explained Vic Sher, a San Francisco attorney who represented the city of Imperial Beach and San Mateo and Marin counties in a climate suit.

SCOTUS Lead Paint Ruling Could Open Door to Corporate Liability for Climate, Gun Violence, and Opioid Crises

“Like the lead paint case, we have an industry that knew its products could inflict serious damage and continued to promote those products anyway.”

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear appeals from paint manufacturers of a ruling that requires them to pay more than $400 million for lead paint inspections and removals in more than a million California homes. (Photo: Ben W./Flickr/cc)

In a move that could open the door for future efforts to hold corporations accountable for knowingly endangering public health, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear appeals from paint manufacturers of a ruling that requires them to pay more than $400 million for lead paint inspections and removals in more than a million California homes.

During the drawn-out legal battle, the manufacturers—Sherwin-Williams, ConAgra, and NL Industries—warned that the ultimate outcome would set a precedent for corporate liability lawsuits. Reporters and legal experts were quick to note that the ruling—which stems from litigation first launched in 2000—could bolster “public nuisance” cases tied to the global climate crisis, the U.S. opioid epidemic, and gun violence.

In an August legal brief (pdf) filed in support of the lead paint makers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a business lobbying group, claimed that “just in the last twelve months, in federal courts alone, at least 80 new public nuisance cases of this sort have been filed by states and other government entities against American businesses, all seeking to impose sweeping liability.”

City, county, and state governments across the country have launched lawsuits that seek to hold major oil and gas companies accountable for the consequences of anthropogenic global warming, which is largely driven by the continued use of fossil fuels. Comparing the lead paint battle to suits that California cities and counties brought against Big Oil, UCLA environmental law expert Sean Hecht told the Los Angeles Times, “The cases are strikingly similar.”

“Like the lead paint case, we have an industry that knew its products could inflict serious damage and continued to promote those products anyway,” explained Vic Sher, a San Francisco attorney who represented the city of Imperial Beach and San Mateo and Marin counties in a climate suit. Although none of the climate suits have succeeded yet, the Supreme Court’s move (pdf) on Monday could impact ongoing cases.

The high court’s decision is slated to cost the lead paint manufacturers hundreds of millions of dollars, though a lower court had initially put them on the hook for more than a billion dollars in damages. Four years ago, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg ordered the companies to pay $1.15 billion for lead paint remediation in homes in seven counties—Alameda, Los Angeles, Monterey, San Francisco, San Mateo, Solano, and Ventura—and three cities—Oakland, San Diego, and San Francisco.

After the companies appealed, a three-judge panel ruled last year they only should be liable for homes built before 1950, reducing damages to between $409 million and $730 million, according to a Sherwin-Williams filing.

The federal government outlawed consumer use of lead-containing paint in 1978, but many homes built before that time have not had the paint removed. “If the paint is in good shape, the lead paint is usually not a problem,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but “deteriorating lead-based paint (peeling, chipping, chalking, cracking, damaged, or damp) is a hazard and needs immediate attention.”

Health risks of lead exposure for young children include behavioral and learning problems; lower IQ and hyperactivity; slowed growth; hearing problems; and anemia. For pregnant women, lead exposure can put the mother at risk for miscarriage; cause pre-term birth or low birth weight; impact brain, kidneys, and nervous system development; and increase the likelihood of learning or behavioral problems. Adults exposed to lead can experience cardiovascular effects, increased blood pressure, incidence of hypertension, decreased kidney function, and reproductive problems.

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