If you happen to live in a house built before the mid-1950s or maybe even 1978, you might be surprised to learn that you could be the proud owner of a public nuisance. At least that’s the novel legal argument being made by the Attorney General of Rhode Island in a trial that began in Providence last week. If the lawsuit succeeds in the nation’s smallest state, watch for it to be exported to the other 49.
The issue is lead paint — the mere presence of which, the state argues, constitutes a public nuisance. Until 1978, when the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned it for residential purposes, lead paint was widely used (though the industry had voluntarily reduced the amount of lead in paint about 20 years earlier). Half the homes in Rhode Island could be contaminated, an attorney for the state said in his opening statement.
If you smell a trial lawyer here, you’re right. The “nuisance” argument was sold to Rhode Island by Motley Rice, the South Carolina law firm that won hundreds of millions of dollars in contingency fees for its litigation against tobacco companies. Fresh from victory in the tobacco wars, the firm was looking around for new deep pockets to target and lighted on paint companies. Senior partner Ron Motley said in 1999 that he intended to “bring the entire lead paint industry to its knees.”