Last month, Senate Bill 697 (S697) was released from the Senate Environment and Energy Committee to the floor of the full Senate after it received the endorsement of New Jersey’s Attorney General. This bill seeks to transform the tort of public nuisance in the context of lead paint. The Attorney General’s endorsement of the bill is surprising since S697 constitutes a radical departure from the rule of law, as outlined below.
By way of background, lead paint has not been widely manufactured for interior use by consumers in the United States since the late 1940s. In the early 1970s, the New Jersey Legislature recognized the hazards created by deteriorating lead paint. Through enactment of the Lead Paint Act, N.J.S.A. 24:14A-1 et seq., it placed responsibility for investigating hazardous lead paint conditions with local boards of health. These authorities can order the owner of any residential building or facility occupied or used by children to repair deteriorating lead paint. If necessary, boards of health have authority to make such repairs at a property owner’s expense and force reimbursement through a civil action and lien on the subject property. Further, certain violations of the Lead Paint Act may be charged as disorderly persons offenses. See N.J.S.A. 24:14A-3. Finally, the Legislature created universal lead screening programs and created low-cost loan and grant programs to provide property owners with financial assistance for abatement of hazardous lead paint conditions—funded in part by taxes on the sale of paint.