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Lead-ing the Charge

Some Say City Should Renew Effort to Sue Lead-Paint Manufacturers in Wake of Recent Court Victory

Frank Klein
GETTING THE LEAD OUT: Activist Terry Harris hopes a recent court ruling can help revive a lawsuit again paint companies.

By Stephen Janis | Posted 3/1/2006

Like lead paint flaking off the walls of an aging rowhouse, the Baltimore City Council’s efforts to sue the lead-paint industry for money to remove paint hazards from the city’s housing stock have crumbled. In a letter to the City Council from city Solicitor Ralph Tyler dated Jan. 11, Tyler stated, “we do not recommend that the Mayor and the City Council pursue litigation against the pigmentation industry at this time.” The letter was written in response to a resolution introduced to the City Council last April 18. The resolution called for Tyler and his staff to explore the possibility of suing paint companies. The resolution is still in committee.

The main legal obstacle Tyler cites in the letter is that to no other city has successfully sued paint manufacturers and won: “To date, no court has found a manufacturer liable in one of these government suits,” Tyler writes, noting pending lawsuits in New York City, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Rhode Island.

Since Tyler’s letter was written, however, the state of Rhode Island won its suit against lead-paint manufacturers. On Feb. 21, jurors found Sherwin-Williams Co., N.L. Industries Inc., and Millennium Holdings LLC liable for the costs of lead-paint cleanup and mitigation. The court will decide on damages at a later date. Saul Kerpelman, a local attorney who has sued landlords on behalf of children poisoned by lead paint over the last two decades, says Rhode Island’s victory should prove to Tyler and other naysayers that a lawsuit against paint manufacturers could be successful in Baltimore.

“The paint manufacturers knew it was a hazard when they sold it, we know who they are, and we know that kids are being poisoned,” he says. “Case closed.”

Kerpelman criticized Tyler for discouraging the city from filing suit.

“I think it’s a disservice to the city of Baltimore for the solicitor to not be more aggressive,” he says. “All the legal obstacles can be overcome. The city is being a follower when it needs to be a leader on this issue.”

Terry Harris, spokesman for the Maryland Alliance for Children’s Environmental Health advocacy group, says the Rhode Island victory marks the first legal affirmation that the use of the lead paint caused a “public nuisance”—a legal precedent that Harris argues could be used by Baltimore in its own lawsuit against lead-paint manufacturers. “Certainly if lead paint is deemed a nuisance in Rhode Island, it’s a nuisance in Baltimore, too,” Harris says. He says plaintiffs in the case also established that lead-paint manufacturers should not be protected from being sued by a statute of limitations because lead poisoning is an ongoing hazard. “Obviously, children are being poisoned now,” Harris says.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D-14th District), the lead sponsor of the city’s resolution to bring suit against paint manufacturers, says she agrees with Harris and Kerpelman that the city should pursue the issue.

“I’m still going to have hearings on the idea to figure out what to do next,” she says, noting that the city solicitor’s opinion is only a minor setback. Clarke says the lawsuit idea is too important to abandon, as it may be the only way the city can afford to fully remove lead paint from its housing. “Just remember, all great undertakings start with a no,” she says.

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