Supreme Court upholds ruling lead-paint makers must pay for cleanup

The Supreme Court upheld a ruling against Sherwin-Williams Co. and ConAgra Brands Inc. requiring them to pay more than $400 million for lead-paint remediation in California. Photo courtesy Turnpike Doubles/Wikimedia Commons

Oct. 16 (UPI) — The Supreme Court rejected appeals from Sherwin-Williams Co. and ConAgra Brands Inc., keeping intact a rule requiring the companies to pay more than $400 million for lead-paint remediation in California.

The two companies issued separate appeals to the California state court’s ruling that they be required to pay to clean up homes built before 1951 after 10 California cities and counties sued the companies for creating a “public nuisance” by promoting lead paint.

Sherwin-Williams and portions of ConAgra argued the ruling violated their constitutional rights to due process of law and free speech, by penalizing them for advertisements promoting lead paint in the early 20th Century.

“The decision … poses an enormous risk to everyone who has ever done business in California, as it opens the door to potentially unbounded suits targeting manufacturers of products sold decades ago,” former U.S. Solicitor Gen. Paul Clement wrote in ConAgra’s appeal.

The Supreme Court ultimately ruled to uphold the lower court rulings that the companies had caused a public nuisance, a ruling meant to address conduct that broadly affects a community, like pollution or the storage of explosives.

“While we are disappointed, the Supreme Court reviews very few cases,” the companies said. “California’s decision is an outlier and at odds with courts across the country which have correctly held that companies should not be held retroactively liable for lawful conduct and truthful commercial speech decades after they took place.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the success of the lead-paint case resulted in a series of similar cases against other industries, with more than 80 filed in federal court in California and other states in the past year.

The two companies said the ruling against them was unconstitutional.

“Pegging public nuisance liability to prior product promotion offers a tempting, facile way to shift responsibility from government policymakers and budgets onto corporations,” Sherwin-Williams said.


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