Twisting Public Nuisance Laws for Cash Rewards

By August 21, 2007Briefly Legal

Some positive news from the tort reform front, the rebuking of jackpot-hunting plaintiff’s attorneys in their efforts to misuse public nuisance laws, turning them into product liability cases with much lower legal standards. From the National Law Journal:

A series of recent rulings have stymied public nuisance claims made by dozens of cities and counties to recover damages related to lead paint, which has been found to cause learning disabilities in children.

In June, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that public nuisance claims could not be used in a lead paint case brought by more than 20 counties and cities. That same month, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the city of St. Louis failed to prove that the paint companies in its suit caused a public nuisance. Also, a Milwaukee jury in June concluded that lead paint was a public nuisance but that the defendant, NL Industries Inc., was not liable for the damages.

At the same time, a decision by the Ohio Supreme Court this month to uphold a law that limits damages in public nuisance claims could affect more than a half-dozen lead paint cases brought by several cities and the state’s attorney general.

The NAM has been active in fighting abusive legal interpretations and expansions of statutes, for example, challenging the Ohio attorney general’s weak claim against the lead-paint industry. The NAM filed a brief in another case, Smith v. Lead Industries Association, which sought to use fraud statutes “inventively.”

These novel interpretation of laws never meant for application to product liability cases may keep trial lawyers employed, but they stand on their head the clear intent of legislatures in writing laws for specific purposes and the years of court cases creating a body of law. Sure, somebody may “cash in” now and then, but is that the reason we have laws?

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