After 13 years, a $1.1 billion verdict for California counties in lead paint case

Ten California jurisdictions receive massive award in victory over three manufacters of lead-based paint, verdict breaks new legal ground and spurs remediation efforts

SAN FRANCISCO (Dec. 16, 2013)— After a thirteen year battle that broke new legal ground and consumed years of work by public and private attorneys, the City and County of San Francisco along with Santa Clara County, Los Angeles County and seven other California cities and counties won a $1.1 billion judgment from the Honorable Judge James P. Kleinberg of Santa Clara Superior Court, who today ruled today that three manufacturers of lead-based paints are jointly liable for the cost of removing their products from homes around the state.

The landmark decision bucks a trend seen in other states by holding that the Sherwin-Williams Company, NL Industries, Inc. and ConAgra Grocery Products Company are liable under the doctrine of public nuisance, a type of claim that is brought by governments rather than individual citizens because the harm alleged is so widespread and damaging. The first complaint in this case was filed in 2000 by then-Santa Clara County Counsel Ann Ravel. San Francisco joined the City as a plaintiff the following year, and City Attorney Dennis Herrera has pursued the case aggressively for over a decade. Thirteen years of pre-trial maneuvers, false starts and delays finally ended Monday with a judgment that will allow local governments to eliminate the health hazards posed by lead paint in residences.

Herrera celebrated a historic win for the City and County of San Francisco, which will receive $77 million for its lead remediation efforts. “This has been a long time in coming,” Herrera said. “We’re overjoyed for the people that will get help in righting a great wrong as we remove this harmful toxin and prevent untold harm to future generations of children. But the real legacy of this victory is that manufacturers now know that in California they’ll be held accountable if they put a harmful product into the stream of commerce. This ruling will have an effect on future corporate conduct that will protect consumers all across California, and hopefully beyond.”

San Francisco’s co-plaintiffs were also extremely happy with the ruling. “This is a tremendous victory not only for the many dedicated people that have worked tirelessly to reduce lead poisoning of young children, but for the parents and children who are still endangered by the lead paint in their homes.” said Santa Clara Assistant County Counsel Danny Chou. “The Court’s ruling holds lead paint manufacturers responsible for the danger that they created and sends a thundering message about the protection that California provides to its most vulnerable citizens.”

During the trial the plaintiffs presented evidence that the three defendant companies aggressively promoted and sold lead paints for home use despite knowing that those paints were highly toxic, particularly to children, concealed the danger that those paints posed, and fought against the regulation of lead paint. The Court ruled that NL Industries, ConAgra and Sherwin-Williams are liable for the harm that they created. Judge Kleinberg ruled in favor of two other defendants, E.I. du Pont de Nemours, and Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO).

The harmfulness of lead paint, especially to children, is so great and so conclusively proven that the California legislature declared in 1986 that lead exposure is “the most significant childhood environmental health problem in the state.” It also declared in 1999 that paint found on structures built prior to 1979 is presumed to be lead-based. There are almost 5 million homes and other residences in the plaintiff jurisdictions that fit that description.

“The existence of other sources of lead exposure has no bearing on whether lead paint constitutes a public nuisance,” Kleinberg wrote in today’s opinion. “It does not change the fact that lead paint is the primary source of lead poisoning for children in the jurisdictions who live in pre-1978 housing.”

The jurisdictions who are plaintiffs in this case are Santa Clara County, Alameda County, the City of Oakland, the City and County of San Francisco, the City of San Diego, Los Angeles County, Monterey County, San Mateo County, Solano County, and Ventura County. The jurisdictions were represented by the law firms of Cotchett Pitre & McCarthy LLP, Motley Rice LLP, Mary Alexander and Associates, and the Law Offices of Peter Earle, as well as by their own County Counsel and City Attorney’s Offices.

Related Documents:

PDF icon Proposed Statement of Decision (Dec. 16, 2013)