Supreme Court Decision on Lead-Based Paint Manufacturers Pivotal

The Supreme Court has decided not to hear a case that will see lead-based paint manufacturers foot the bill of a $400 million cleanup effort. The Supreme Court’s decision means that the California state court ruling stands.

The California court found Sherwin-Williams, Conagra and NL Industries responsible for damages caused by lead-based paints. The $400 million bill applies only to homes built before 1951.

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Lead-Based Paint Manufacturers Responsibility

The court’s refusal to hear the case is a major blow to the paint manufacturers. While $400 million is a drop in the bucket for them, the precedent set is groundbreaking. The manufacturers’ point was understandable: from their point of view, they shouldn’t have to pay the fines. After all, this occurred over 60 years ago, and it wasn’t illegal at the time.

That assertion, however, is somewhat disingenuous. There was ample evidence pointing to the dangers of lead as early as the turn of the twentieth century. In fact, there are multiple examples of companies informing their employees to avoid inhaling lead dust when possible. As such, paint companies’ insistent marketing of lead-based paints is seen in a much less favorable light.

Ramifications of the Ruling

The California court ruling sets a fascinating precedent. Not only will the three manufacturers named have to foot the cleanup bill, but this open up the possibility that other companies be held responsible for past activities. As this case shows, even activities that were legal at the time are not safe from scrutiny. After all, these companies were aware of the dangers, so they should be responsible for cleanup.

Notable, this could apply to companies causing massive amounts of pollution. Large, multinational conglomerates that have hurried global warming along could be pinned with the cleanup bill under this precedent. In this light, it makes sense why corporations are unnerved by this ruling.

A spokesperson for Sherwin-Williams called the ruling “an outlier … at odds with courts across the country which have correctly held that companies should not be held retroactively liable for lawful conduct and truthful commercial speech decades after they took place.”

Conversely, Nanci E. Nishimura, an attorney for several of the California districts represented in the suit, was delighted by the ruling.  “We are delighted that the Supreme Court did the right thing,” Nishimura stated, “The message is clear: We have to move this fund ahead to remove lead that is still poisoning children.”