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Partially emboldened by a favorable December court ruling, the two California cities run by the Mayors Brown — Oakland and San Francisco — announced that they have joined Santa Clara County’s fraud suit against paint manufacturers. The suit, which was filed in March 2000, alleges that the lead paint industry has known about the hazards of some of its paint products for nearly a century. The paint companies say the statute of limitations has run out for such suits and that the litigation is a way for government agencies to shake down paint manufacturers — which voluntarily discontinued lead paint in 1955 — for cash. On Dec. 8, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Gregory Ward ruled that the complaint should not be dismissed on the statute of limitations basis. Ward also overruled arguments that the government services doctrine required local agencies to pick up the tab for the effects of lead paint use, such as abatement and public notification. “Basically we were allowed to go forward,” said Santa Clara County counsel Ann Ravel. That court victory helped convince city attorney John Russo to get involved. “It’s my impression that that was an important hurdle,” said Russo. “Now that they have survived the initial motions, we can get into discovery. There is little doubt about what has been revealed — that the companies were not up-front.” Joining the fray Monday were the city and county of San Francisco, San Francisco Housing Authority, the San Francisco Unified School District, Oakland, the Oakland redevelopment agency, the Oakland Housing Authority, and the Oakland Unified School District. The suit falls in line with Russo’s effort to boost the city’s legal profile on groundbreaking litigation. “Oakland is and remains on the cutting edge legally,” said the city attorney, referring to Oakland’s involvement with antitobacco company litigation. “I want us to be more assertive with things where the public was bearing the burden of environmental issues.” According to figures provided by Oakland, there are an estimated 7,900 children in the city who suffer from lead poisoning, and 84,000 Oakland homes built before 1950 may have been painted with lead-based paint. As a co-plaintiff in what Santa Clara County hopes will become a class action, Oakland will also shoulder any court-imposed fees if it loses the suit, said Karen Boyd, spokeswoman for the city attorney’s office. Burlingame, Calif.’s Cotchett, Pitre & Simon has helped Santa Clara County litigate the suit and has agreed to take 17 percent of any settlement or judgment. An attorney with a South Bay firm who represents NL Industries, one of the defendants, downplayed the December ruling and the growing lists of plaintiffs. “There are many weaknesses in the case,” said James McManis, managing partner of San Jose, Calif.’s McManis, Faulkner & Morgan. The government agencies still must overcome weaknesses in the suit related to the statute of limitations, the allegation of fraud and causation, he said. “The demurrer, which was the subject of the (December) procedure … doesn’t look at evidence,” McManis said. “Any clever lawyer — especially ones as wily as Cotchett lawyers — can write a complaint.”

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