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SFALP Students Assist in California Lead Paint Case

After a 13 year battle that broke new legal ground and consumed years of work by public and private attorneys, the City and County of San Francisco along with Santa Clara County, Los Angeles County and seven other California cities and counties won a $1.1 billion judgment from the Honorable Judge James P. Kleinberg of Santa Clara Superior Court, who ruled in December 2013 that three manufacturers of lead-based paints are jointly liable for the cost of removing their products from homes around the state.

Students in the San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project (SFALP) have worked closely with the San Francisco City Attorney's Office on this case since 2006, making it one of SFALP's longest running projects.

The landmark decision bucks a trend seen in other states by holding that the Sherwin-Williams Company, NL Industries, Inc. and ConAgra Grocery Products Company are liable under the doctrine of public nuisance, a type of claim that is brought by governments rather than individual citizens because the harm alleged is so widespread and damaging.

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who has pursued the case aggressively for more than a decade, celebrated a historic win for the City and County of San Francisco, which will receive $77 million for its lead remediation efforts. “This has been a long time in coming,” Herrera said. “We’re overjoyed for the people that will get help in righting a great wrong as we remove this harmful toxin and prevent untold harm to future generations of children. But the real legacy of this victory is that manufacturers now know that in California they’ll be held accountable if they put a harmful product into the stream of commerce. This ruling will have an effect on future corporate conduct that will protect consumers all across California, and hopefully beyond.”

During the trial the plaintiffs presented evidence that the three defendant companies aggressively promoted and sold lead paints for home use despite knowing that those paints were highly toxic, particularly to children, concealed the danger that those paints posed, and fought against the regulation of lead paint. The Court ruled that NL Industries, ConAgra and Sherwin-Williams are liable for the harm that they created. Judge Kleinberg ruled in favor of two other defendants, E.I. du Pont de Nemours, and Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO).

The harmfulness of lead paint, especially to children, is so great and so conclusively proven that the California legislature declared in 1986 that lead exposure is “the most significant childhood environmental health problem in the state.” It also declared in 1999 that paint found on structures built prior to 1979 is presumed to be lead-based. There are almost 5 million homes and other residences in the plaintiff jurisdictions that fit that description.