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Three former lead paint manufacturers found liable in Rhode Island for contaminating more than 200,000 residences may have ducked paying punitive damages in that case, but their problems are far from over. The jury verdict still leaves the companies facing hundreds of millions of dollars in decontamination costs, and may give succor to the public-entity plaintiffs that have similar suits pending around the country. A trial judge ruled that the companies would not have to pay punitive damages. Rhode Island v. Lead Industries Assoc., No. 99-5226. Rhode Island attorney General Patrick C. Lynch said that abatement was really the goal. “Although we acted on our right to seek punitive damages, this suit has always been about abatement,” he said. Of the defendants found liable, Sherwin-Williams Co. did not return calls seeking comment. NL Industries Inc. refused to comment. Millennium Holdings LLC issued a press release indicating that it had just begun to fight. While the verdict could encourage additional lawsuits, most of the pending suits are hanging by a thread. Plaintiffs’ best chances lie in the following two cases: More than 20 public entities in New Jersey, including the cities of Newark and Union City, are pursuing litigation under a public nuisance theory. This once-dismissed mass tort litigation case was revived by a state appellate court in 2005, which tossed out additional theories of liability that the plaintiffs had pleaded. In re Lead Paint Litigation, No. 702 MT (Middlesex Co., N.J., Super. Ct.). The defendants have appealed. A Milwaukee case is aimed at just two defendants, including a local lead paint producer. The city seeks $85 million to abate lead hazards in 41,000 houses in neighborhoods in which about a quarter of the children allegedly have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Also resurrected by an appeals court, the case is expected to go to trial this year. City of Milwaukee v. NL Industries Inc., No. 01CV003066 (Milwaukee Co., Wis., Cir. Ct.). But the lead pigment industry has done far better in seven other suits. In January, a state intermediate appeals court dismissed a public nuisance suit brought by the city of Chicago. The Illinois Supreme Court refused to intervene. Also in January, summary judgment was granted to pigment manufacturers in a case brought by the city of St. Louis. Santa Clara County, Calif., brought a class action, later joined by several cities and other counties. The trial court said it was barred by the statute of limitations. The case is on appeal. Several other purported class actions have been dismissed in state and federal courts. Robert O. Zdenek, executive director of the Alliance for Healthy Homes, a nonprofit that works to prevent housing-related health hazards, remains upbeat about the Rhode Island case despite the punitive damages ruling. “What’s important is that they were able to hold the lead pigment manufacturers accountable for their actions and omissions,” Zdenek said. Of the two other Rhode Island defendants, Atlantic Richfield Co. was found not liable and E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. settled in June for about $10 million.

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