A state appeals court in San Jose ruled Tuesday that three paint companies must pay for removing lead-based paint from the interiors of houses built before 1951 in ten populous cities and counties.
A three-judge Court of Appeal panel unanimously upheld a 2014 finding by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg that the companies created a public nuisance by promoting the use of lead-based paint while knowing that lead dust was harmful to children.
But the appeals court narrowed down the original $1.15 billion verdict ordered by Kleinberg after a non-jury trial.
Kleinberg ruled that the paint companies must pay $1.15 billion for abatement of interior lead-based paint in an estimated 3.5 million homes built in the 10 jurisdictions before 1980.
The appeals court said the mandate should apply only to houses built before 1951 because there is no evidence the companies advertised the use of lead-based paint, as opposed to paint in general, after 1951.
Unless the paint companies successfully appeal Tuesday's ruling to the California Supreme Court, the case will go back to Santa Clara County Superior Court to determine how much the abatement will cost for the pre-1951 houses.
The lawsuit was filed by Santa Clara County in 2000 and later joined by Alameda, Los Angeles, Monterey, San Mateo, Solano and Ventura counties, the city and county of San Francisco and the cities of Oakland and San Diego.
The three paint manufacturers are Sherwin-Williams Co.; NL Industries Inc., formerly known as National Lead Industries; and ConAgra Grocery Products Co., which took over the former Fuller paint company.
"NL, SWC, and Fuller, as leaders in the lead paint industry, were well aware in the early part of the 20th century that lead dust was poisonous," Justice Nathan Mihara wrote for the court.
"Defendants promoted lead paint for interior residential use knowing that such use would create a serious risk of harm to children," Mihara said in the court's 143-page decision.
Exposure to lead in deteriorated paint dust and chips can cause brain damage, learning disabilities, lowered IQ scores, slowed growth and kidney damage in children. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control concluded in 2012 that "no safe blood lead level in children has been identified."
Lead-based paint was banned in the United States in 1978.
Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker and San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera both issued statements saying the narrowed-down order will still result in the abatement of a majority of the lead-painted homes in their cities.
"Lead paint is prevalent in Oakland homes and disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income communities. In this case, the defendants knew they were selling a product that poisoned children, yet they continued to sell it and market it as safe," Parker said.
Parker said the ruling was not everything she'd hoped for, but said it, "requires that the defendants clean up the vast majority of Oakland homes that contain lead paint."
The decision "affirms that major companies cannot knowingly harm Californians and get away with it," Parker said.
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said that about two-thirds of homes in San Francisco were built before 1950, and thus the paint companies "will still have to pay to clean up the vast majority of homes in San Francisco that contain this dangerous toxin."
"This case is about protecting future generations of children from the untold harm created by the dangerous products these companies peddled," Herrera said.