California settles decades-long lawsuit over lead paint, but outcome is bittersweet – Reuters

California settles decades-long lawsuit over lead paint, but outcome is bittersweet – Reuters

OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) – When Californian counties and cities first sued paint makers in 2000, they wanted the companies to pay billions to remove dangerous old lead paint from hundreds of thousands of homes.

Ashley Avila, 11, plays with her nephew Alexander Avila, 3, outside of their home where Alexander was lead poisoned by lead-based paint in Oakland, California, U.S. June 18, 2019. REUTERS/Kate Munsch

After a 19-year legal struggle, they have finally succeeded in getting the companies to fund a remediation program, albeit on a much smaller scale. Sherwin-Williams, ConAgra Grocery Products Co. and NL Industries have agreed to a $305 million settlement, according to a filing in Santa Clara County Superior Court in California on Wednesday.

The resolution marks a rare success for a public nuisance claim, under which counties and municipalities can sue corporations for past activities – including those conducted decades ago – they say have harmed communities.

High-profile public nuisance claims have proliferated in recent years in the United States as local governments try to use the courts to make corporations pay for societal ills like lead poisoning, the opioid addiction crisis and climate change.

Yet the glacial pace and complex twists in California’s lead paint case highlight just how difficult it can be to use the public nuisance strategy against corporations, even in a state whose courts are particularly consumer friendly.

A trial judgment in 2014 ordered the paint companies to pay $1.15 billion, but an appeals court decision led to the amount being slashed by more than half in 2017. Once the companies had exhausted the appeals process, they threatened to sue individual property owners who received help cleaning up their properties, by claiming they had failed to properly maintain their housing.

“This landmark settlement will allow thousands of homes to be remediated, and as a result current and future generations of California children will no longer face the threat of lead poisoning,” said James Williams, County Counsel for Santa Clara County, where the lawsuit was first filed.

“We’re pleased that we’ve been able to hold lead paint manufacturers accountable and responsible,” he said.

The defendant paint companies did not admit any wrongdoing under the settlement, and Sherwin-Williams and ConAgra welcomed the end of the legal battle.

“Sherwin-Williams is pleased to have reached an agreement to resolve this litigation, and it will continue to vigorously and aggressively defend against any similar current or future litigation,” the company said in a written statement.


The number of U.S. children poisoned by lead has fallen sharply since the United States banned the toxic metal from residential paint and gasoline, during the 1970s and 80s.

But for California districts like Oakland and Los Angeles, where childhood lead poisoning still exacts a heavy toll, the outcome of the legal struggle is bittersweet.

In the decades it took the local governments to prevail, tens of thousands more children in California have been exposed to dangerous levels of lead, state public health data shows.

In Alameda County, for example, some zip codes have lead poisoning rates higher than those found in Flint, Michigan, at the peak of that city’s water contamination crisis (

County inspectors found dangerous paint dust in the East Oakland home of 3-year-old Alexander Avila, who tested with lead levels more than five times the elevated standard of five micrograms per deciliter set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

When a reporter visited the nearly century-old home last month, Alexander was a ball of hyperactive energy. His mother Stephanie, 26, said he is able to speak few words and has trouble engaging with other kids at preschool. She fears his past lead exposure will affect him for life.

“People just don’t know what’s in their own houses, or the dangers their kids can face,” she said.

A county program helped fix lead paint hazards at the home, but public funds are scarce to repair housing before it can harm children.

In nearby Hayward, California, another predominantly working class city in the San Francisco Bay Area, five members of the Mariscal family, including two children, were poisoned by lead paint at their old home during 2017 and 2018, county health data and inspection reports show.

Three year-old Isaac, who tested at levels more than twice the CDC’s elevated threshold, suffered anemia – a common symptom of lead exposure – and, like Alexander, has also had speech problems.

The CDC says there is no safe level of lead in children’s blood. At least 4 million U.S. children remain at risk of exposure from chipping paint or lead dust in their housing, the agency says. Lead paint doesn’t pose an immediate danger unless it is deteriorating.

Many of the 10 counties and cities that brought the lawsuit have tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of older housing units. Neutralizing lead paint hazards in a single home can cost thousands of dollars, so the settlement money may only cover the clean-up of a fraction of homes that need work.

“The litigation money can only go so far, but it’s a start,” Larry Brooks, director of Alameda County’s lead poisoning prevention program, said in an interview last month.

More than 6,300 children have been exposed to elevated lead levels in his county since 2000, when the litigation began, according to county health data.

Although the United States banned lead paint sales in 1978, most old housing still contains it, and thousands of U.S. neighborhoods still have alarming poisoning rates, Reuters found in a series of articles in 2017. (


California jurisdictions are the first to have a public nuisance verdict upheld against former lead paint manufacturers. Several lawsuits in other states have failed since 2000, from Illinois to Missouri and Rhode Island.

The California case may set a new legal precedent for seeking remediation. Legal scholars say it could encourage new lawsuits against paint companies, and Californian local governments report receiving inquiries from counterparts in other areas of the country interested in bringing their own nuisance claims.

In product liability lawsuits, attorneys must prove harm to individual plaintiffs. In public nuisance cases, the plaintiffs don’t have to prove harm to specific people. Instead, they can claim that the defendants’ activities impeded broad community rights, such as the public right to enjoy property.

In California, the plaintiffs argued the companies were responsible for creating a public health threat and knew of the toxic dangers of lead paint when they marketed it, without properly warning consumers, for decades before the U.S. government banned its use in homes.

The paint companies argued that they stopped marketing lead paint products once risks became known. They contended that home owners were responsible for preventing any poisoning hazards in their living spaces.

Santa Clara County recently filed another public nuisance case against opioid pill manufacturers, and similar cases are popping up with increasing frequency nationwide.

Many of these suits share a common goal: making big business pay to fix high-cost societal burdens that their profit-making activities may have left behind.

Corporate defense attorneys worry that more wins for local governments under the public nuisance doctrine could saddle businesses with huge and unpredictable liabilities, in some cases for decades-old actions they thought were safe at the time.


The California local governments and the companies settled after a marathon legal battle that saw both sides suffer setbacks.

Beyond seeing the earlier $1.15 billion judgment sharply cut back by an appeals decision, the plaintiffs were concerned with court-imposed restrictions on how the money could be used.

For instance, the terms had limited the remediation program to housing built before 1951, and only indoor paint hazards could be fixed. The local governments also faced a tight, four-year window to complete the program, after which any unspent funds would be returned to the paint companies.

As recently as January, court filings from the case show, lawyers for the paint companies vowed to sue California property owners who sought to use the remediation funds. Counties were concerned the mere specter of these suits would have a chilling effect on the remediation program, which will rely on housing owners’ voluntary participation.

It was an unusually bold move, legal scholars say.

“Talking about suing property owners is an aggressive tactic,” said Bob Rabin, a tort law specialist at Stanford University.

Slideshow (14 Images)

“I can’t think of another public nuisance judgment where defendants turned around and said recipients of the damages should be disqualified because they are to blame,” he said.

With the settlement in place, these threats and court-imposed limitations on how the money can be spent will now be lifted.

Paint companies have agreed not to target property owners with lawsuits, cities and counties can take as much time as they need fixing homes, and housing built through the 1970s – when lead paint was still being sold – are also eligible for help, including on exterior walls.

Reporting By Joshua Schneyer; Editing by Michael Williams and Ross Colvin


  1. When I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new feedback are added- checkbox and now every time a remark is added I get 4 emails with the identical comment. Is there any manner you’ll be able to take away me from that service? Thanks!

  2. Youre so cool! I dont suppose Ive learn anything like this before. So good to search out any person with some authentic thoughts on this subject. realy thanks for beginning this up. this website is one thing that’s needed on the web, somebody with slightly originality. helpful job for bringing one thing new to the internet!

  3. I discovered your weblog website on google and examine a couple of of your early posts. Continue to maintain up the superb operate. I just extra up your RSS feed to my MSN Information Reader. Looking for ahead to studying extra from you afterward!?

  4. I precisely wanted to thank you very much yet again. I do not know what I would have made to happen in the absence of the entire creative ideas discussed by you regarding such area of interest. It has been a real hard difficulty in my circumstances, but understanding the very professional fashion you processed that forced me to weep with delight. Extremely happier for your guidance and thus hope that you recognize what a great job you are always providing educating the rest through the use of your web blog. I am sure you haven’t met any of us.

  5. I would like to get across my love for your generosity in support of visitors who actually need assistance with this important content. Your very own commitment to getting the solution up and down ended up being particularly invaluable and have without exception helped many people much like me to realize their aims. The warm and helpful publication entails a lot a person like me and further more to my office colleagues. With thanks; from each one of us.

  6. I simply wanted to construct a remark in order to say thanks to you for all the amazing suggestions you are writing at this website. My prolonged internet lookup has now been paid with reputable facts to exchange with my companions. I would declare that we website visitors are very much blessed to be in a remarkable site with so many perfect people with valuable basics. I feel extremely lucky to have seen your entire webpages and look forward to many more exciting moments reading here. Thanks a lot again for everything.

  7. I and also my guys appeared to be reading the good secrets and techniques located on your web blog and so instantly I got an awful feeling I had not thanked you for those strategies. Those men happened to be warmed to read through them and have in effect in actuality been having fun with these things. I appreciate you for actually being quite thoughtful as well as for choosing this kind of useful resources most people are really desperate to be informed on. My very own honest apologies for not expressing gratitude to you earlier.

  8. Thank you so much for providing individuals with remarkably brilliant opportunity to read from this website. It is usually so superb and also full of amusement for me and my office friends to visit your site particularly thrice a week to study the newest secrets you have. And lastly, we’re actually fascinated with all the mind-blowing tips and hints you give. Selected 1 points on this page are undeniably the most beneficial we have had.

  9. A lot of thanks for your own labor on this blog. Debby really loves engaging in internet research and it’s simple to grasp why. I learn all relating to the lively manner you provide very helpful tricks through your website and therefore boost contribution from other people on this area plus our favorite princess is now discovering a great deal. Enjoy the rest of the new year. Your conducting a dazzling job.

  10. I precisely wished to say thanks yet again. I am not sure the things that I would have undertaken in the absence of the type of techniques shared by you on such a topic. Certainly was a frustrating condition in my opinion, however , finding out a new well-written tactic you dealt with it forced me to jump over gladness. I’m just happy for this assistance and then believe you recognize what a powerful job you happen to be doing educating people using your site. Probably you’ve never met all of us.

  11. I happen to be writing to make you know what a helpful discovery our daughter had browsing the blog. She came to understand a lot of pieces, not to mention what it’s like to possess an incredible helping nature to let most people easily thoroughly grasp selected tricky subject matter. You undoubtedly surpassed readers’ expected results. Thanks for distributing those good, safe, informative as well as easy tips about that topic to Emily.

  12. I wanted to compose you one tiny note to help give thanks once again considering the pleasant solutions you’ve contributed above. It was quite strangely open-handed with you to provide without restraint all many of us would’ve distributed for an ebook in making some dough on their own, primarily since you could have done it if you ever desired. Those good tips as well acted to provide a good way to realize that some people have the identical zeal like my very own to see a little more concerning this problem. I think there are millions of more pleasant periods up front for individuals who go through your blog post.

  13. My spouse and I absolutely love your blog and find almost all of your post’s to be exactly what I’m looking for. Would you offer guest writers to write content to suit your needs? I wouldn’t mind producing a post or elaborating on many of the subjects you write in relation to here. Again, awesome web site!

  14. I want to show my affection for your kind-heartedness in support of people that must have guidance on the niche. Your very own commitment to getting the message all over came to be extremely functional and have frequently helped many people just like me to reach their ambitions. Your amazing important instruction can mean a lot a person like me and additionally to my colleagues. Warm regards; from everyone of us.

  15. I simply wanted to write a quick word to express gratitude to you for all of the superb instructions you are showing at this website. My extended internet look up has at the end of the day been compensated with good quality knowledge to exchange with my family members. I ‘d claim that most of us website visitors actually are quite endowed to live in a good website with many outstanding professionals with very beneficial principles. I feel quite happy to have come across the website and look forward to really more awesome moments reading here. Thanks again for all the details.

  16. I and my pals have been digesting the excellent information located on your website and immediately got a horrible feeling I never expressed respect to the blog owner for those secrets. All the women appeared to be certainly excited to learn them and now have in truth been taking pleasure in them. Appreciate your indeed being indeed considerate and also for getting certain brilliant issues most people are really wanting to learn about. Our own honest regret for not expressing appreciation to you earlier.

  17. I precisely needed to thank you very much yet again. I am not sure the things I might have sorted out in the absence of the tips and hints contributed by you regarding that topic. It previously was the daunting situation in my position, however , taking a look at the well-written avenue you treated it made me to jump for fulfillment. Now i am grateful for the assistance and hope you recognize what a powerful job that you’re carrying out teaching the rest all through your web blog. Probably you have never encountered any of us.

  18. I really wanted to construct a remark in order to thank you for those unique hints you are placing at this website. My rather long internet look up has at the end of the day been rewarded with wonderful information to go over with my friends and family. I ‘d assert that many of us site visitors actually are rather endowed to be in a wonderful website with very many awesome professionals with valuable advice. I feel quite grateful to have seen the website page and look forward to really more cool moments reading here. Thanks a lot again for a lot of things.

  19. I simply want to mention I am beginner to blogs and seriously enjoyed your web-site. Probably I’m planning to bookmark your blog . You really have beneficial article content. Thanks a lot for sharing with us your web site.

  20. This design is spectacular! You certainly know how to keep a reader amused. Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!) Excellent job. I really enjoyed what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it. Too cool!

  21. I want to express my gratitude for your kind-heartedness for people who actually need help with that area. Your real dedication to passing the solution along was unbelievably practical and have in every case made others much like me to arrive at their endeavors. Your important guideline implies so much to me and especially to my peers. Best wishes; from all of us.

  22. I together with my friends ended up digesting the best hints found on your web blog while then I had a horrible suspicion I never expressed respect to the website owner for those techniques. The boys were definitely as a result stimulated to study all of them and now have in truth been loving them. I appreciate you for turning out to be really thoughtful and also for selecting some fine useful guides millions of individuals are really eager to learn about. My personal sincere regret for not expressing gratitude to you sooner.

  23. I am not sure where you are getting your info, but good topic. I needs to spend a while learning more or working out more. Thanks for excellent info I was in search of this information for my mission.

  24. I have to voice my affection for your generosity for those individuals that need help on this particular subject. Your personal dedication to passing the message across appeared to be extraordinarily valuable and have really encouraged individuals much like me to reach their pursuits. Your new helpful report indicates a great deal to me and especially to my office colleagues. Thank you; from everyone of us.

  25. Hello, Neat post. There’s a problem along with your website in web explorer, would check this… IE nonetheless is the marketplace chief and a big component to other people will pass over your excellent writing due to this problem.

  26. Howdy! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering which blog platform are you using for this site? I’m getting sick and tired of WordPress because I’ve had problems with hackers and I’m looking at alternatives for another platform. I would be fantastic if you could point me in the direction of a good platform.

  27. I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own weblog and was wondering what all is needed to get set up? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny? I’m not very web smart so I’m not 100 positive. Any suggestions or advice would be greatly appreciated. Many thanks

  28. I like what you guys are up also. Such smart work and reporting! Keep up the superb works guys I’ve incorporated you guys to my blogroll. I think it’ll improve the value of my web site :).


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here