R.I. Court Reins In Abuse of Public Nuisance Laws

By July 1, 2008Briefly Legal

The Rhode Island Supreme Court today handed down an important ruling that should discourage government officials from abusing public-nuisance statutes by stretching them into all-purpose legal weapons against whomever happens to be the target of the moment.

The court ruled unananimously in State of Rhode Island v. Lead Industries Association, Inc., et al.overturning the 2006 jury verdict that punished paint manufacturers (NL Industries, Inc., The Sherwin-Williams Co., and Millennium Holdings LLC) for violating the state’s public nuisance laws. State Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse, now a Democratic U.S. Senator, brought the suit in 1999 and after a complicated legal process, the jury found the companies found responsible for lead paint contamination in Rhode Island homes and buildings.

We would summarize the AG’s argument this way: Some Rhode Island structures have lead paint in them, lead paint is dangerous, and even though the state can’t prove these manufacturers had anything to do with specific incidents of lead paint exposure, they’re kind of generally at fault, really. Or at least they should be. And so these bad actors should pay up for creating a public nuisance. How much? Attorney General Patrick Lynch outlined a $2.4 billion remediation plan last year to be paid for by manufacturers.

The court’s tough opinion rejects those arguments:

[We] conclude that the state has not and cannot allege any set of facts to support its public nuisance claim that would establish that defendants interfered with a public right or that defendants were in control of the lead pigment they, or their predecessors, manufactured at the time it caused harm to Rhode Island children.

In reaching this conclusion, we do not mean to minimize the severity of the harm that thousands of children in Rhode Island have suffered as a result of lead poisoning. Our hearts go out to those children whose lives forever have been changed by the poisonous presence of lead. But, however grave the problem of lead poisoning is in Rhode Island, public nuisance law simply does not provide a remedy for this harm. The state has not and cannot allege facts that would fall within the parameters of what would constitute public nuisance under Rhode Island law. As set forth more thoroughly herein, defendants were not in control of any lead pigment at the time the lead caused harm to children in Rhode Island, making defendants unable to abate the alleged nuisance, the standard remedy in a public nuisance action. Furthermore, the General Assembly has recognized defendants’ lack of control and inability to abate the alleged nuisance because it has placed the burden on landlords and property owners to make their properties leadsafe. 

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