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The state judiciary has added suits over lead-based paint to the types of complex litigation bound for special handling in Middlesex County, N.J.’s mass-tort capital. In an order published Friday, Chief Justice Deborah Poritz directs that pending and future cases be transferred to Judge Marina Corodemus, who has set the first case-management conference for March 15. The paint has been linked to cognitive problems in children, particularly when they ingest chipped paint. Poritz found the mass tort warranted because the “cases involve numerous claims that may merit special attention as complex litigation.” The Administrative Office of the Courts says it has information on only 15 such suits, all brought by local and county governments. Among them are Jersey City, Bayonne, Union City, Passaic, Highland Park, Plainfield, Hillside, Union, Linden, Roselle and Roselle Park, and Essex, Union and Cumberland counties. The total number is expected to be much larger — three attorneys alone say they have 150 — but won’t be known until after consolidation. “Municipalities, not just in New Jersey but everywhere, are jumping on the bandwagon,” says AOC civil-court program chief Michelle Perone. Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer of Woodbridge, N.J., is representing about 20 public bodies and more than 100 individuals, says partner Christopher Placitella. The suits by public bodies seek abatement of lead paint in homes, while those brought by individuals seek abatement plus damages for injuries to children with lead poisoning, he says. Defendants include Cytec Corp. of West Paterson, N.J.; the American Cyanamid division of BASF in Mount Olive, N.J.; NL Industries of Houston; Sherwin Williams of Cleveland; E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. of Wilmington, Del.; and Valspar Inc. of Minneapolis. Lawyers on both sides are watching Rhode Island v. Lead Industries Association, 99-5226, the first suit brought against lead-paint manufacturers by a state government. Filed in state court in October 1999, the suit seeks funds for medical treatment and remedial education of children with lead poisoning as well as abatement of lead paint in homes. The Rhode Island suit is seen as a test case for claims that the lead-paint issue is a public nuisance, rather than a product liability, claim. That same claim is being set forth by plaintiffs’ attorneys in New Jersey. They say that the public has been harmed by the defendants’ actions. Tom Graves, vice president and general counsel for the National Paint and Coatings Association in Washington, D.C., says the number of such suits has been rising nationwide because plaintiffs’ firms enriched by proceeds of litigation against tobacco companies are pursuing many of the lead paint suits brought by government bodies. The legal team on the Rhode Island case includes Robert McConnell of the Mount Pleasant, S.C., law firm Ness Motley Loadholt Richardson & Poole, which has led the litigation by states against the tobacco industry. Jon Gelman, a Wayne, N.J., solo practitioner representing Union County in its lead-paint suit, is seeking class-action certification for every government entity in the state. His action seeks lead-paint abatement for every public building containing lead-based paint as well as education and medical treatment for children with lead poisoning. Gelman has more than 15 suits involving lead-based paint. Another plaintiffs’ lawyer is Richard Winograd of Ginarte, O’Dwyer, Winograd & Laracuente in Newark, N.J., who has about 15 suits pending against landlords on behalf of tenants whose children have lead poisoning. In cases where landlords have homeowners’ insurance, he says he has achieved verdicts in the $300,000 range for a single dwelling, but some landlords are uninsured or have other liens on their properties, thwarting his collection efforts, Winograd says. He does not pursue lead-paint manufacturers because of the difficulty of identifying which company made the paint on the walls of a given plaintiff’s home. Winograd questions whether the consolidation order will extend to cases like his. The AOC’s Perone says the order is written broadly to include all cases relating to lead paint, but Corodemus has discretion to send cases back to their counties of origin if they are not deemed in need of coordination. Corodemus, New Jersey’s mass-tort manager, supervises litigation including cases stemming from use of diet pills, tobacco, breast implants, HIV-infected blood, fire-retardant-treated plywood, asbestos, latex, the diabetes drug Rezulin and the cold medicine and diet pill additive phenylpropanolamine.

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