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California Supreme Court Lets Stand Landmark Decision to Protect Thousands of Children from Lead Poisoning

Decision to Deny Review Clears the Way to Inspection and Abatement of Lead Paint in Homes throughout California

SANTA CLARA COUNTY, CALIF. – On February 14, 2018, the California Supreme Court denied requests by lead paint manufacturers—Sherwin-Williams Company, NL Industries, Inc., and ConAgra Grocery Products—to review a decision requiring those companies to pay several hundred million dollars to identify and clean up lead paint from millions of homes built before 1951 in Santa Clara County and nine other California cities and counties. Lead paint is the predominant source of lead poisoning in children, and in 2014 alone, 10,331 children throughout California tested positive for lead poisoning. 

The County of Santa Clara initiated the lawsuit and has been the lead public entity litigating the case on behalf of the People of the State of California. “After 18 years of litigation, the state legal issues have reached a final conclusion—the California Courts at all levels have determined that the lead paint manufacturers are legally responsible for cleaning up the toxic lead paint they knowingly marketed in our communities,” said Santa Clara County Counsel James R. Williams. “It is time now for the lead paint manufacturers to fund the cleanup, without further delay. Each day that passes more children across our state are exposed to potential poisoning.”

Although the federal government banned lead paint for residential use in 1978, lead paint continues to harm young children living in homes with lead paint. Young children are exceptionally vulnerable to lead paint, and there is no safe blood level for lead in children. Even at the lowest levels, lead causes permanent neurological damage to children, decreasing IQ and causing other serious health consequences.

The California Supreme Court’s action brings an end to most of the legal issues in the litigation. Seeking to avoid having to comply with the courts’ rulings, the same lead paint manufacturers that are defendants in the case have proposed a state ballot initiative seeking to void the judgment against them.

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About the Lead Paint Litigation

The first complaint in this case was filed in 2000 by the Office of the County Counsel for the County of Santa Clara. Nine other cities and counties subsequently joined the litigation: the County of Alameda, the City of Oakland, the City and County of San Francisco, the City of San Diego, the County of Los Angeles, the County of Monterey, the County of San Mateo, the County of Solano, and the County of Ventura. The public entities jointly prosecuted this case on behalf of the People of the State of California, with the assistance of the law firms of Cotchett Pitre & McCarthy LLP, Motley Rice LLP, Mary Alexander and Associates, the Law Offices of Peter Earle, and Altshuler Berzon LLP. 

The case was filed in the Santa Clara County Superior Court. After a six-week trial in 2013, the trial court issued its order in 2014, finding that Sherwin-Williams, ConAgra, and NL Industries had created a public nuisance in the 10 jurisdictions by promoting lead paint for interior use despite knowledge of the substantial harms that would result. Defendants were ordered to pay $1.15 billion into a fund to inspect for and abate lead paint in all homes constructed up through 1980.

In 2017, the Sixth District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s judgment as to all pre-1951 homes and remanded the case to the Superior Court for further proceedings to recalculate the abatement fund for pre-1951 housing in the 10 jurisdictions. With the Supreme Court’s denial of the defendants’ petition for review, the case will be remanded back to the Superior Court to make this determination and allow the lead paint inspections and abatement to begin.

About the Santa Clara County Counsel’s Office

The County Counsel serves as legal counsel to the County, its Board of Supervisors and elected officials, every County department and agency, and the County’s boards and commissions. With a staff of 170 employees, including 85 attorneys, the Office of the County Counsel is also responsible for all civil litigation involving the County and its officers. Through its Social Justice and Impact Litigation Section, the Office litigates high-impact cases, drafts local ordinances, and develops other policies and programs to advance social and economic justice. 

About the County of Santa Clara, California

The County of Santa Clara government serves a diverse, multi-cultural population of 1.9 million residents. With a $6.5 billion annual budget, dozens of offices/departments, and over 18,000 employees, the County provides essential services to its residents, including public health protection, environmental stewardship, medical services through Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, child and adult protection services, homelessness prevention and treatment, roads, park services, libraries, emergency response to disasters, protection of minority communities and those under threat, access to a fair criminal justice system, and many others, particularly for those in the greatest need. The County is the most populous county in Northern California.

Media ContactMaría Leticia Gómez​​/Laurel Anderson, Office of Public Affairs, (408) 299-5119.

Posted: February 15, 2018​

Last updated: 2/15/2018 3:52 PM