Sherwin-Williams Co., is one of five paint companies being sued by 10 California cities and counties seeking $1billion to replace or contain lead paint in millions of homes. Defendants also include, DuPont, ConAgra Grocery, NL Industries Inc., and Atlantic Richfield Co.
Joe Cotchett, a lawyer for the cities and counties, told the judge he had met the “substantial and reasonable” standard of proof of lead poisoning to children required for the case to go forward. The key document proving his case came from a 1937 Chicago gathering of staff doctors for each of the paint companies titled “Lead Poisoning, Report of Conference Physicians and Surgeons of Member Companies.” Physicians attending the conference were told not to tell anyone about it, and not to take notes, Cotchett told the judge.
“They knew in the 1930s that lead poisoning of children was happening and they tried to conceal it,” Cotchett said in an interview.
Tony Dias, a lawyer for Sherwin-Williams, said in an interview that the document from the 1937 conference concerns the occupational risks of working with lead, and that it has nothing to do with lead paint.
The defendants argue that each of them have their “own unique facts” and are represented by different lawyers. Sherwin-Williams said in a court filing that the appeals court ruling allowed the case to go forward only as an effort to block future harm, and that the cities and counties “cannot recover money damages or a fund to cover costs of abatement.”
“The alleged wrongful conduct must be connected to the alleged harm today,” a standard which the cities and counties “failed to meet,” Sherwin-Williams said in the filing.
In a 2006 opinion, state appeals-court Judge Nathan Mihara said that while lead paint was banned for use in public buildings in 1978, the companies’ “misrepresentations about the dangers of low-level lead exposure” caused government entities “to fail to make timely efforts to prevent and treat” the problem. Mihara continued, the misrepresentations “increased the cost of treatment for those who had been exposed or continued to be exposed.” It wasn’t until 1998 that studies adequately analyzed the companies’ misrepresentations and proved that low-level lead exposure could cause serious damage to fetuses, children and adults.
The case is California v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 1-00-CV-788657, California Superior Court, County of Santa Clara (San Jose).
These and related lawsuits have been ongoing across the U.S. See more coverage of key decisions in the cases over the years below.