Monday, September 23, 2013
Marketplace has a segment about lead paint litigation today featuring our own Elizabeth Burch. The trigger is a lead paint trial that closed in California today. See here for a news story. The question posed is how the lead paint manufacturers have escaped the kind of liability that tobacco or asbestos. What's the difference? Here are some theories. Caveat: These are just some ruminations, not a definitive work on lead paint by any stretch.
1. Who's doing the suing?
Municipalities vs. victims: Beth points out that in these lead paint suits municipalities or states are pursuing a public nuisance theory against the paint manufacturers and this makes them different than some more successful mass torts. Some courts think that this doctrine is a bad fit with the wrong at issue. But not all lead paint cases have been brought by municipalities. In the beginning, much like tobacco or asbestos, these cases were brought on behalf of victims. This is a late-stage litigation after failures at the individual or group victim level.
Poor children vs. workers: The victims of lead paint were poor children who ingested the paint chips, whereas in the tobacco and asbestos cases they were adult workers. This is not a doctrinal explanation but a socio-political one.
Scienter: In tobacco there was evidence of misrepresentation and manipulation. That seems to be a big part of the argument in the California courtroom from press reports: what did the lead manufacturers know and when?
2. What's the doctrine?
Market share liability. First, and I think most importantly, the idea of market-share liability failed to gain traction after some initial gains early on. Without being able to tie a particular manufacturer to the apartment where the paint was ingested, plaintiff can't show that this manufacturer caused the harm. In that sense lead not like asbestos (where work places kept records) or tobacco (where people know what brand they smoked).
Public nuisance doctrine is a relatively novel theory for this type of mass tort. That doesn't make it wrong, but it doesn't make it an easy sell to courts either.
3. Is there insurance? The asbestos manufacturers had more insurance coverage than you'd think due to some loose underwriting in mid-century. What is the lead paint manufacturers' coverage and how is this affecting these suits?
More theories welcome.