Decade-Old Pro-Business Ohio Bill Let Lead-Paint Manufacturers Off the Hook for Paying for Cleanup

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Decade-Old Pro-Business Ohio Bill Let Lead-Paint Manufacturers Off the Hook for Paying for Cleanup
Mike Mozart/Flickr CC

In October of last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a California case in which the state courts found that paint manufacturers – one of which was Cleveland-based Sherwin-Williams – must pay the cleanup bill for thousands of homes contaminated with lead paint. The manufacturers will be paying $409 million for the California home contamination fix, though it is still being figured out how and when the amount will be turned over to 10 California cities and counties involved in the case.

Meanwhile, back here in Ohio, the PD reported a few weeks ago that a plan to have local private businesses and government institutions in the area — which included the city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals — fund the cleanup of lead with private bonds was falling apart. Once again, it is the old “pass-bucking” in Cleveland when it comes to the toxic lead paint issue with children.

So how did California get $409 million from the businesses that made the lead paint and profited from it (and did so decades after everyone knew there were health issues in such paint), while Ohio is trying to scratch and claw for a tiny amount of money on this issue? Well, as usual, when the Ohio business community needs something — in this instance, protection against liability for bad products — the Ohio state legislature takes care of business.

California first filed their case in 2000, and for the next 18 years, they fought hard against the paint manufacturers’ constant appeals and legal wrangling over economic interpretations and what the big dollar amount might be. Eventually, the ruling amount was reduced by the courts from $1.15 billion to $409 million, but the perseverance by the cities and counties did pay off. The national high court ruling three months ago means the end of the road over lead paint liability appeals for Sherwin-Williams in California.

Slightly different in Ohio. Around 2006, several Ohio cities – including Cincinnati, Columbus, Toledo, East Cleveland, Canton, Lancaster, and others — filed public nuisance lawsuits against paint manufacturers. But the paint manufacturers decided to move their defense plan out of the courtroom and into the state legislature.

In December of 2006, the legislature passed a pro-business bill that restricted the lead paint liability lawsuits and consumer fraud damage cases against businesses. There was some court fighting over the bill, but eventually the Ohio Supreme Court ruled the pro-business bill just fine in August of 2007. The Ohio city lead paint lawsuits eventually all got dropped because of that bill.

One lawsuit hung around, however. Then Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann filed a lead paint lawsuit in early 2007, saying there was “a long history of problems with lead paint and there are victims, particularly children in economically depressed areas where the homes are filled with lead paint” and “all parties should be held accountable.” Sherwin-Williams was one of those parties sued by the state.

Dann resigned in May 2008 over a sex scandal and the Ohio AG’s office was up for grabs. Democrat Richard Cordray eventually won, and took office in January of 2009. Cordray’s got rid of that case quickly. One of his first acts as state AG was to drop the lead paint lawsuit against Sherwin-Williams and others. "I understand and strongly agree that exposure to lead paint is a very real problem," Cordray said in a statement at the time. "But I also know that not every problem can be solved by a lawsuit."

He added that "after assessing the law, facts and adverse legal rulings in these types of cases nationally, the attorney general concluded that those at risk — and Ohio's economy — would be best served by focusing on how public/private partnerships can be enhanced to address any existing problems with lead paint exposure."

Well, we can now see how that all worked out: lead paint public/private partnerships solutions in Ohio – 0. Lead paint lawsuits in California - $409 million.
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