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September 21 2006- Rhode Island city targets paint firms


Columbus is taking steps to sue paint companies, and city leaders hope to reap big money for lead-paint-abatement and health programs.

Lawyers and city officials started making plans after Rhode Island won a landmark lawsuit in February against three paint companies. The state stands to collect billions to remove lead paint from aging homes.

The federal government banned lead paint sales in 1978 after tests showed it could cause serious health problems in children. But Rhode Island argued successfully in its suit that the companies continued to make lead pigment for paint despite knowing the dangers.

And in Columbus, lead paint continues to pose hazards, public health officials say.

From 1996 through 2005, lead poisoning was diagnosed in 2,578 Columbus children, most of them younger than 6 years old, said Laura Studevant, the Health Department?s chief of environmental hazards.

Last year, 790 addresses with leadpaint hazards were identified in Columbus, Assistant City Attorney Patricia Delaney said.

Eating or inhaling lead paint or dust can diminish children?s intelligence levels, cause attention-deficit problems and impair growth and the ability to understand language, said Dr. Marcel Casavant, medical director of the Central Ohio Poison Center. It can also lead to high blood pressure when children get older.

Casavant said Children?s Hospital still admits several children a year with lead poisoning. But he said it?s less of a problem than it was 10 or 15 years ago. The number of confirmed cases in Columbus dropped from 800 in 1997 to 139 last year.

The city?s Lead Safe Columbus pro- gram is spending about $3 million in federal money over three years to pay for programs, including $1.75 million to clean lead paint from homes. With the latest round of funding, the city will clean up 226 homes, said Joe Gothard, the program?s manager.

But the city could use more money to screen children and provide transitional housing for families whose homes are being cleaned, said Jose Rodriguez, a spokesman for the city Health Department.

Sixty percent of the homes in Columbus were built before 1979, said Toledo lawyer Andrew Lipton, who is expected to work on the Columbus case.

On July 31, the City Council approved a contract with six law firms and attorneys to represent the city.

According to the city?s contract with the lawyers, potential defendants include DuPont, Sherwin-Williams, Glidden Corp., American Cyanamid Co., N.L. Industries, Atlantic Richfield Co., the Lead Industries Association and other lead manufacturers, distributors and retailers.

The city has not signed the contract yet, Delaney said. Those law firms also stand to make a lot of money: 25 percent of any settlement and 33 percent of any court decision.

A suit is expected to be filed in Franklin County Common Pleas Court by the end of the year, said John P. Kennedy, a lawyer with the Columbus law firm Crabbe Brown & James and a former City Council president.

Kennedy said he talked to City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr. this year about a lawsuit after talking to a Toledo attorney working with the Providence, R.I., law firm Motley Rice, the lead counsel in the Rhode Island case. Motley Rice would be involved in the Columbus case.

Columbus would be following other communities and states that have sued the paint industry since the Rhode Island case resulted in the first loss for paint companies in the country, said Jonathan Orent, a Motley Rice lawyer.

The Rhode Island jury decided that three companies that once made lead paint, including Cleveland-based Sherwin-Williams, were liable for cleanup costs that have been estimated at $1.37 billion to $3.74 billion, the Providence Journal reported.

The judge is deciding what the amount will be, Orent said, although the judge has determined there will be no punitive damages. Orent said 240,000 houses in Rhode Island could be cleaned up.

Initially, lead paint and pigment lawsuits filed against the companies failed because they were product-liability cases and those filing the suits couldn?t prove who made the paint, Delaney said.

But in Rhode Island, Motley Rice lawyers said lead paint was causing a public nuisance, and therefore was costing the government and society money, Kennedy said.

The companies argued that lead paint was a problem only in a small number of poorly maintained homes, and that the state did not prove a clear link between lead pigment the companies made and lead poisoning in children.

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