Issue: August 2007 Issue
Sherwin-Williams Battles Lead Paint Lawsuits and What it Means to You
For those who paid close attention in Bible class, it was not money that was evil, it was the love of money — the love of money is the root of all evil.
It is a lesson worth remembering as you read this month’s cover story on lead paint lawsuits and The Sherwin-Williams Co. It is a story that begins as a portrayal of innocent children being poisoned from eating peeling chips of lead paint from walls and windowsills, but quickly turns into a story so full of greed that five communities in Ohio sued Sherwin-Williams, the state’s fifth-largest manufacturing company and 15th-largest employer.
When the first lead paint lawsuit was filed it had all the makings of a financial disaster for major paint manufacturers, Sherwin-Williams was among them. Cities and counties all over the United States were filing lawsuits claiming lead paint was poisoning their children. Naturally, they sought millions in damages.
Sherwin-Williams, which has not produced any lead paint since 1937 and had never lost a lead paint lawsuit under product liability law, was easy to paint in the press as a giant corporation preying on innocent children.
As lead paint lawsuits began to increase and as paint companies began to investigate, the public was about to learn, as Paul Harvey likes to say, the rest of the story. Turns out, communities who were passionate about saving the lives of their children were also passionate about lining their pockets with gold. Ron Motley was on the case.
For those not familiar with the name, Ron Motley is the Motley of the famed law firm of Motley Rice. The same firm that won from America’s tobacco companies billions of dollars. Following his great success, Motley had been looking for an encore. He had been busy contacting cities to get them to jump on the bandwagon of greed. What he had done for states in tobacco settlements he promised he would do again for cities and counties in lead paint settlements. As he said in a story in the Dallas Morning News in 1999, “If I don’t bring the entire lead paint industry to its knees within three years, I will give them my boat.” (Reportedly a 120-footer.)
As much as we would like to paint Ron Motley as the villain in this story, we can’t. Ron Motley is doing what the law allows. And that’s where this story becomes important to every business owner in the state of Ohio.
Ron Motley didn’t get his boat by accident. Knowing he couldn’t win lead paint lawsuits under traditional laws of product liability, he moved the game to another playing field. It’s called public nuisance law. If you’re my neighbor whose rock band practices at midnight in your backyard and you refuse to stop when I ask, I can protect myself under this public nuisance law. Public nuisance law never intended to cover product liability cases, but Motley and other smart lawyers got states to agree to try lead paint lawsuits under it.
But why should you care? If you own a business in Ohio, you should be alarmed. The good news is that state courts are beginning to come to their senses. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in June that municipal and county officials couldn’t sue paint manufacturers under the public nuisance law because state law doesn’t give them the right to do so.
The bad news, as of press time, is the state of Ohio does permit lead paint public nuisance lawsuits. What this means to Ohio business owners is that any manufacturer can be sued under this law, a law that invites abuse.
There is so much good happening in Ohio that the last thing we need is a law that forces businesses to defend themselves against frivolous lawsuits. Our major manufacturers — Northeast Ohio companies such as Parker Hannifin, Eaton, Invacare, Timken Co., Sherwin-Williams — should be helped in every way possible to grow and prosper in this region. They are the foundation of our future.
Today there is a feeling of hope in Ohio. Our new administration is acting forcefully in making economic development — jobs — its top priority. It is our fervent plea that the state of Ohio will stand up for the businesses that got us here, and strike down the ability to prosecute product liability cases under the public nuisance law.
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