Paint companies hit with lead-paint ruling

The paint industry has proved generally successful in court, dodging expensive lead-paint related rulings.

But not in California. Not Monday.

A judge in Santa Clara County Superior Court ruled that paint companies must pay $1.1 billion to 10 California cites and counties -- including Los Angeles County -- as part of a lead removal program. Millions of older homes will be involved in the treatment.

In a 10-page decision, judge James Kleinberg wrote: “There is clear and present danger that needs to be addressed. The defendants sold lead paint with actual and constructive knowledge that it was harmful.”

The ruling -- after 13 years, three judges and a recent five-week trial without a jury -- hits Sherwin-Williams Co., ConAgra Grocery Products Co., NL Industries Inc. and Sherwin Williams Co.

"The existence of other sources of lead exposure has no bearing on whether lead paint constitutes a public nuisance," Kleinberg wrote in today's opinion. "It does not change the fact that lead paint is the primary source of lead poisoning for children in the jurisdictions who live in pre-1978 housing." 

Defenders of the paint companies have claimed for years that the paint companies marketed lead-based paint in good faith, not knowing the health risks.

“The decision violates the federal and state constitutions,” said spokeswoman Bonnie Campbell in a prepared statement. “It rewards scofflaw landlords who are responsible for the risk to children from poorly maintained lead paint.”

The companies will ask Kleinberg to alter his ruling. They also said they will file an appeal if that’s what it takes to change the ruling.

ConAgra was particularly puzzled with the judge’s decision.

"We vehemently disagree with the decision and will appeal. We are absolutely not an appropriate defendant," said a spokeswoman. "ConAgra Foods was never even in the paint business. As a food maker who employs thousands of people in California, we believe this case is an unfortunate example of extreme overreach."

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