The Sherwin-Williams Co. has sued counsel for plaintiffs in past lead paint lawsuits, claiming that the attorneys for the Rhode Island attorney general and other claimants improperly obtained and used copies of internal documents discussing the paint manufacturers’ strategy in the lead paint litigation. The complaint was filed against plaintiff counsel in state court in Ohio.

The complaint alleges that plaintiff counsel came into possession of confidential information from a 2004 board of directors meeting. Sherwin-Williams claims that the slides were created by its inside counsel in order to update the company’s board on various issues in the lead paint and pigment litigation, including possible response to settlement overtures in dozens of public nuisance and private lawsuits.

We have posted on lead paint issues before. Properly viewed, state attorneys general typically fail to prove that the paint companies had control of the lead paint when it allegedly harmed children in their states. Control at the time the damage occurs is critical in any 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 many state legislature have explicitly established. However grave the problem of lead paint may be, public nuisance law simply does not provide a remedy for this alleged harm. The proper means of commencing a lawsuit against a manufacturer of lead pigments for the sale of an allegedly unsafe product is a products liability action, with all the potential defenses to such a claim. 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 allow plaintiffs to attempt to hold manufacturers liable for harmful products that the manufacturers have caused to enter into the stream of commerce.

Here, the company’s complaint alleges that plaintiff counsel presented the confidential slides in a legal memorandum opposing a motion for costs, filed with the Rhode Island Superior Court during the public nuisance suit brought by the Rhode Island attorney general. The company includes a John Doe defendant, allegedly responsible for disclosing the documents. Plaintiff counsel allegedly acknowledged receipt of the documents and their confidential nature, but has thus far refused to return them, according to the complaint.

Sherwin-Williams is seeking a return of the documents, an order barring plaintiffs from using them, punitive damages, costs and court fees.

UPDATE:  The plaintiffs’ firm has apparently agreed not to use or disseminate the documents pending further order of the court.