In a unanimous decision, the Rhode Island Supreme Court has rejected the state’s public nuisance suit against three former lead pigment makers. See Rhode Island v. Lead Industries Association, No. 2006-158-Appeal; No. 2007-121-Appeal (July 1, 2008).

The decision represents the latest round in the ongoing battle surrounding the misapplication by plaintiffs of the traditional tort of nuisance. The Rhode Island action was the first suit filed by a state against the lead paint industry. Since then, appeals courts in New Jersey, Missouri, and Illinois all have rejected public nuisance claims against former lead pigment manufacturers.

The state sued a number of paint makers and the trade group Lead Industries Association Inc., in 1999. The state alleged that the manufacturers or their predecessors-in-interest had
manufactured, promoted, distributed, and sold lead pigment for use in residential paint, despite
that they allegedly knew or should have known, since the early 1900s, that lead is hazardous to human health. The state also contended that the LIA was, in essence, a co-conspirator of one or more of the manufacturers from at least 1928 to the present. The state asserted that defendants failed to warn Rhode Islanders of the hazardous nature of lead and failed to adequately test lead pigment. In addition, the state maintained that defendants concealed these hazards from the public or misrepresented that they were safe.

Paint manufacturers voluntarily stopped selling lead-based house paint in the 1990’s after evidence began to suggest that it posed serious health risks. Particular to the nuisance claim,  defendants assert that they did not control the lead pigment at the time it caused harm to Rhode Island children and that, therefore, they cannot be held liable for public nuisance. The defendants also argue that there was no interference with a public right, as that term has been recognized under public nuisance law.

The Rhode Island trial judge declined to dismiss the state’s public nuisance claims. Defendants had asserted that the state had not alleged and could not show that defendants’ conduct interfered with a public right, or that defendants were in control of lead pigment at the time it allegedly caused harm to children in Rhode Island. The first trial in the case ended in a mistrial in 2002. Following a 15-week trial, the longest civil jury trial in the state’s history, the jury in state Superior Court in 2006 found Sherwin-Williams Co., NL Industries Inc., and Millennium Holdings LLC responsible for the public nuisance posed by lead in buildings. The jury found that the defendants should be ordered to abate the nuisance, the first time in the United States that a trial resulted in a verdict that imposed liability on lead pigment manufacturers for creating a public nuisance. The state offered a $2.4 billion abatement plan in September 2007.

On appeal, defendants argued that argued that the trial justice erred by: (1) misapplying the law of public nuisance; (2) finding a causal connection between defendants’ actions and lead poisoning in Rhode Island; and (3) failing to hold that the action was barred by the constitutional provision concerning separation of powers. In an 81-page ruling, the state’s top court reversed the judgment of abatement.

The Restatement (Second) defines public nuisance, in relevant part, as follows:
1) A public nuisance is an unreasonable interference with a right common to the general public.   2) Circumstances that may sustain a holding that an interference with a public right is unreasonable include the following: “(a) Whether the conduct involves a significant interference with the public health, the public safety, the public peace, the public comfort or the public convenience….” 4 Restatement (Second) Torts § 821B at 87.

The Rhode Island Court accordingly recognized three principal elements that are essential to establish public nuisance: (1) an unreasonable interference; (2) with a right common to the general public; (3) by a person or people with control over the instrumentality alleged to have created the nuisance when the damage occurred. After establishing the presence of the three elements of public nuisance, one must then determine whether the defendant caused the public nuisance.”  Causation is a basic requirement in any public nuisance action.” In addition to proving that a defendant is the cause-in-fact of an injury, a plaintiff must demonstrate proximate causation.

The Rhode Island attorney general failed to prove that the companies interfered with a public right or had control of the lead paint when it harmed children in the state. Control at the time the damage occurs is critical in public nuisance cases, especially because the principal remedy for the harm caused by the nuisance is abatement. The responsibility for the harm that lead paint caused lies with property owners, as the state Legislature has already established. “The General Assembly has recognized defendants’ lack of control and inability to abate the alleged nuisance because it has placed the burden on landlords and property owners to make their properties lead-safe.”

However grave the problem of lead poisoning is in Rhode Island, public nuisance law simply does not provide a remedy for this harm. The proper means of commencing a lawsuit against a manufacturer of lead pigments for the sale of an unsafe product is a products liability action. The law of public nuisance never before has been applied to products, however harmful. “Undoubtedly, public nuisance and products liability are two distinct causes of action, each with rational boundaries that are not intended to overlap.” Public nuisance focuses on the abatement of annoying or bothersome activities. Products liability law, on the other hand, has its own well-defined structure, which is designed specifically to hold manufacturers liable for harmful products that the manufacturers have caused to enter the stream of commerce.

Courts presented with product-based public nuisance claims have expressed their concern over the ease with which a plaintiff could bring what properly would be characterized as a products liability suit under the guise of product-based public nuisance. Courts in other states consistently have rejected product-based public nuisance suits against lead pigment manufacturers, expressing a concern that allowing such a lawsuit would circumvent the basic requirements of products liability law. See American Cyanamid Co., 823 N.E.2d at 134; Benjamin Moore & Co., 226 S.W.3d at 116; In re Lead Paint Litigation, 924 A.2d at 503-05 (N.J.).

The battle now shifts to pending cases in Ohio and California.