On July 1, 2008, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that the public nuisance suit filed by the state’s attorney general against various former lead pigment manufacturers, that resulted in a jury verdict against the manufacturers, should have been dismissed by the trial justice. State of Rhode Island v. Lead Industries Ass’n, Inc., No. 2004-63-M.P., No. 2006-158-Appeal, No, 2007-121-Appeal (PC 99-5226) (July 1, 2008). The Supreme Court held that there was no set of facts alleged in the state’s complaint that could have demonstrated that the defendants’ conduct interfered with a public right or that the defendants had control over the product causing the alleged nuisance at the time that children were injured.
The public nuisance lawsuit was first filed in 1999. After the first trial resulted in a mistrial, the second trial, lasting four months, became the longest civil jury trial in Rhode Island’s history and marked the first time in the United States that a trial resulted in a verdict imposing liability on lead paint pigment manufacturers under a public nuisance theory. Among other grounds, the defendant manufacturers appealed from the trial justice’s denial of their motion to dismiss and argued that the trial justice erred by misapplying the law of public nuisance and by finding a causal connection between defendant’s actions and lead poisoning in Rhode Island. In reversing the judgment of the Superior Court as to the liability of the defendants, the court concluded that the state did not and could not allege any set of facts to support the claim that the defendants interfered with a public right. The court reasoned that the right of an individual child not to be poisoned by lead paint is a nonpublic right, and the court saw no reason to depart from the long-standing principle that a public right “is a right of the public to shared resources such as air, water, or public rights of way.” Further, the court reasoned that even if the state adequately alleged interference with a public right, it would also have to allege that the defendant manufacturers controlled the pigment at the time it caused injury, which it did not. The court noted that its decision that defendants’ alleged conduct did not constitute a public nuisance does not leave Rhode Islanders without a remedy, because state law allows for injunctions against landlords who allow lead paint on their property to decay, as well as penalties and fines against noncompliant property owners.