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Judge Orders Firms to Pay $1 Billion to Remove Lead Paint from Homes

Paint that was used in the 1930s and 40s contained dangerous lead that deteriorated over time and harmed people, especially children.

Lead paint. Credit: Patch archive
Lead paint. Credit: Patch archive
A Superior Court judge in San Jose Monday ruled that three major companies must pay $1.1 billion to remove lead paint from decades-old homes that may have poisoned children in eight California counties and the cities of San Diego and Oakland.

Santa Clara County Judge James Kleinberg ordered the firms Sherwin Williams, NL Industries and ConAgra Grocery Products to pay to remove lead paint within homes in Santa Clara, San Mateo, Alameda, Solano, Monterey, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Ventura counties, according to his decision filed Monday.

Kleinberg said that the lead paint abatement program, also including the cities of San Diego and Oakland, would last for up to four years after the defendants make the total $1.1 billion payment.

Joseph Cotchett, a Burlingame attorney for the plaintiffs who said he agreed to take the case at the request of Santa Clara County back in 2000, said the ruling means the three companies must put up the money for paint removal in a bond even if they appeal Kleinberg's judgment.

Cotchett said the judge sided with the plaintiff's argument that Sherwin Williams, NL and ConAgra used lead paint inside the homes, some built back in the 1930s and 1940s, knowing that the paint harmed people, especially children under six who suffered from lead poisoning.

The lead paint from the interior of the affected homes deteriorated over time and left contaminated paint chips and dust that young people put in their mouths from floors and toys and damaged their livers, kidneys, brains and nervous systems, Cotchett said.

"The whole purpose of the lawsuit was to inspect (the homes) and have the abatement done," Cotchett said.

The judge eliminated two other companies, Atlantic Richfield, also known as ARCO, and DuPont, because those firms used exterior lead paint and the case focused on paint spread inside homes by Sherwin Williams, NL and ConAgra, Cotchett said.

In response, Bonnie Campbell, a spokeswoman for the three companies, said in an emailed statement that the ruling "is at odds with California law and judicial decisions across the country that have uniformly rejected similar public nuisance claims."

Campbell said the judge refused a request by the defendants to try the case before a jury and violated the U.S. and state constitutions "by penalizing manufacturers for the truthful advertising of lawful products, done at a time when government officials routinely specified those products for use in residential buildings."

The risks to children of lead in paint known today "were unknown and unknowable decades ago" and the ruling "rewards scofflaw landlords who are responsible for the risk from poorly maintained lead paint," Campbell said. The ruling "is more likely to hurt children than help them, and it will likely disrupt the sale, rental and market value of all homes and apartments built before 1978," Campbell said.

Campbell's statement did not mention whether the defendants planned to appeal Kleinberg's decision.

The judge asked that the $1.1 billion be disbursed in percentage shares to 10 government jurisdictions with the spending overseen by the Board of Supervisors in each county.

Under his ruling, Los Angeles County, the state's most populous, would get the most, up to $605 million, with Alameda and Santa Clara counties next with $99 million each, then San Francisco and San Diego with $77 million each.

San Mateo County would get up to $55 million, Ventura County $44 million and Solano and Monterey counties $22 million apiece, according to the judge's decision.

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