Rhode Island Lead Paint Verdict Ethically Tainted

In Rhode Island, a jury recently returned a verdict holding out-of-state paint manufacturers liable to the state for potentially billions of dollars, under the theory that sales of lead paint constituted a “public nuisance” even back when it was legal.

The trial judge rejected challenges to this verdict, ruling that a paint manufacturer could be held liable even if its paint cannot be found in even a single building in Rhode Island. Instead, the paint manufacturers were held liable based on their national market share of lead paint sales.

One of the complaints of the paint companies in that case is that the state’s lawsuit was brought against them by trial lawyers hired to work on a contingency fee-basis by the state’s attorney general, who hired campaign contributors to sue the paint companies. The contingency fee gave the lawyers an incentive to seek the most costly possible remedy for the lead paint “nuisance,” rather than the best one for the vantage point of public health. That’s a big conflict of interest for lawyers working on behalf of a state attorney general’s office, which is supposed to exercise its power to sue in an evenhanded way.

A judge in California has now ruled that such state lawsuits by lawyers hired on a contingency fee-bases are unethical, ruling against lawyers who brought a similar lead paint lawsuit in California. This is one of many reasons why the Rhode Island lead paint verdict should be reversed.