The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a state’s risk-contribution theory,under which a plaintiff is relieved of the traditional requirement to prove that a specific manufacturer caused his injury, does not violate the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution and thus reinstated claims against companies that allegedly failed to warn the plaintiff about the purported dangers of white lead carbonate pigments used in lead-based paint. Gibson v. Am. Cyanamid Co., No. 10-3814 (7th Cir., decided July 24, 2014).
The issue arose in the case of an individual who allegedly developed neurological defects and other injuries from lead-based paint applied to the house into which he and his family moved in 1997; the house was built in 1919, and the paint was used at some time before 1978 when the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission prohibited paint makers from intentionally adding lead to residential paint. The named defendants were allegedly the pigment’s primary producers.
Before reaching the merits of the defendant manufacturers’ arguments, the court had to decide whether a state law, enacted while the lawsuit was pending, that retroactively extinguished risk-contribution theory in the state courts violated the state’s due-process guarantee. The court determined that the statute did violate the state’s due-process principles, because it extinguished the plaintiff’s vested right in his negligence and strict-liability causes of action. Balancing the public and private interests at stake, the court found that while the law would allow businesses to operate in the state without fear of products-liability litigation based on riskcontribution theory, the plaintiff will have no remedy even if he can show that the pigment manufacturers contributed to the risk of injuring him.
According to the Seventh Circuit, in dismissing the plaintiff’s claims, the lower court erred in relying on a U.S. Supreme Court plurality ruling that overturned a law with retroactive application to coal miner pensions given that the decision “did not produce a binding precedent (other than its specific result) because no controlling principle can be gleaned from the plurality, concurrence (which was a concurrence in the judgment only), and the dissenting opinions.” In the Seventh Circuit’s view, the risk-contribution theory was neither arbitrary and irrational nor unexpected and indefensible. So ruling, the court reversed judgment in favor of the defendants and remanded for the lower court to reinstate the case and for further proceedings.