State v. Lead Industries, Ass'n, Inc., 2004-63-M.P.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island
Citation951 A.2d 428
Docket NumberNo. 2007-121-Appeal.,No. 2004-63-M.P.,No. 2006-158-Appeal.,2004-63-M.P.,2006-158-Appeal.,2007-121-Appeal.
PartiesSTATE of Rhode Island v. LEAD INDUSTRIES ASSOCIATION, INC., et al.
Decision Date01 July 2008

Neil Kelly, John McConnell, Fidelma Fitzpatrick, Genevieve Allaire-Johnson, James Lee, Providence, for Plaintiff.

John A. MacFadyen, III, Donald Scott, Pro Hac Vice, Joseph Cavanagh, Laura Ellsworth, Pro Hac Vice, Paul M. Pohl, Pro Hac Vice, Thomas Bender, William Kayatta, Pro Hac Vice, John Tarantino, for Defendants.



Addressing the issues seriatim for a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Williams authored Tracks I and II and Associate Justices Suttell, Flaherty, and Robinson authored Tracks III, IV, and V, respectively. In this landmark lawsuit, filed in 1999, the then Attorney General, on behalf of the State of Rhode Island (the state), filed suit against various former lead pigment manufacturers and the Lead Industries Association (LIA), a national trade association of lead producers formed in 1928.

After the first trial resulted in a mistrial, a second trial commenced; that second trial, spanning four months, became the longest civil jury trial in the state's history.1 This monumental lawsuit2 marked the first time in the United States that a trial resulted in a verdict that imposed liability on lead pigment manufacturers for creating a public nuisance.

After a four-month trial, which concluded on February 22, 2006, a jury found defendant manufacturers, NL Industries, Inc. (formerly National Lead Co.) (NL), The Sherwin-Williams Co. (Sherwin-Williams), and Millennium Holdings LLC (Millennium) (collectively defendants), liable under a public nuisance theory.3 Both before and after the jury returned its verdict, the trial justice issued nineteen written decisions, ruling on a variety of pretrial, trial, and post-trial motions that both the state and defendants had filed. The defendants filed an appeal from the judgment entered against them. The state, for its part, appealed the judgment in favor of defendant Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO) and two contempt orders that had been entered against the Attorney General. In addition, in 2004, defendants had petitioned this Court for a writ of certiorari to review the issue of contingency fees. We issued the writ, but thereafter concluded that the matter was not then justiciable. See State v. Lead Industries Association, Inc., 898 A.2d 1234, 1235 (R.I.2006). The defendants have asked this Court to entertain that petition again. Finally, the state cross-appealed on the issue of compensatory damages.

Because of the sheer number of parties and the complexity of issues involved in these appellate proceedings, this Court consolidated all the appeals filed with this Court and established a five-track procedure for the briefing of all pending appeals and cross-appeals. The five tracks are: (1) the individual liability appeals of defendants, Millennium, NL, and Sherwin-Williams, from the judgment of abatement in favor of the state; (2) the state's cross-appeal on the issue of compensatory damages; (3) the state's appeal from the judgment in favor of ARCO and ARCO's conditional cross-appeal; (4) the state and the Attorney General's appeal of contempt orders entered in December 2005 and June 2006 against the state Attorney General; and (5) the issue of the propriety of the state's entering into a contingency fee agreement with private counsel to prosecute the public nuisance action, which issue is before us pursuant to our issuance of a writ of certiorari. This Court heard oral arguments on each appeal on May 15, 2008. This opinion addresses the issues seriatim.

Track I


Chief Justice WILLIAMS, for the Court.

On appeal from, inter alia, the trial justice's denial of their motion to dismiss, their renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law, and their alternative motion for a new trial, defendants, Millennium, NL, and Sherwin-Williams, argue that the trial justice erred by: (1) misapplying the law of public nuisance; (2) finding a causal connection between defendants' actions and lead poisoning in Rhode Island; and (3) failing to hold that this action is barred by the constitutional provision concerning separation of powers. In addition, defendants direct this Court's attention to a variety of alleged errors occurring at trial, some of which they contend amount to violations of both the United States and Rhode Island constitutions. For the reasons set forth herein, we reverse the judgment of the Superior Court as to the liability of defendants, Millennium, NL, and Sherwin-Williams, because we conclude that the trial justice erred by denying defendants' motion to dismiss. More specifically, we conclude that the state has not and cannot allege any set of facts to support its public nuisance claim that would establish that defendants interfered with a public right or that defendants were in control of the lead pigment they, or their predecessors, manufactured at the time it caused harm to Rhode Island children.

In reaching this conclusion, we do not mean to minimize the severity of the harm that thousands of children in Rhode Island have suffered as a result of lead poisoning. Our hearts go out to those children whose lives forever have been changed by the poisonous presence of lead. But, however grave the problem of lead poisoning is in Rhode Island, public nuisance law simply does not provide a remedy for this harm. The state has not and cannot allege facts that would fall within the parameters of what would constitute public nuisance under Rhode Island law. As set forth more thoroughly herein, defendants were not in control of any lead pigment at the time the lead caused harm to children in Rhode Island, making defendants unable to abate the alleged nuisance, the standard remedy in a public nuisance action. Furthermore, the General Assembly has recognized defendants' lack of control and inability to abate the alleged nuisance because it has placed the burden on landlords and property owners to make their properties lead-safe.

This Court is bound by the law and can provide justice only to the extent that the law allows. Law consists for the most part of enactments that the General Assembly provides to us,4 whereas justice extends farther. Justice is based on the relationship among people, but it must be based upon the rule of law. This Court is powerless to fashion independently a cause of action that would achieve the justice that these children deserve. United States Supreme Court Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo, a rightly revered student of the law, once summarized as follows the inherent limitations of the judicial role:

"The judge, even when he is free, is still not wholly free. He is not to innovate at pleasure. He is not a knight-errant roaming at will in pursuit of his own ideal of beauty or of goodness. He is to draw his inspiration from consecrated principles. He is not to yield to spasmodic sentiment, to vague and unregulated benevolence. He is to exercise a discretion informed by tradition, methodized by analogy, disciplined by system, and subordinated to `the primordial necessity of order in the social life.'" Benjamin N. Cardozo, The Nature of the Judicial Process 141 (1921) (quoting François Gény, Méthode d'Interprétation et Sources en droit privé positif, vol. II, p. 303, sec. 200, ed. 1919; transl. Modern Legal Philosophy Series).

Likewise, in the words of United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., "judges must be constantly aware that their role, while important, is limited. They do not have a commission to solve society's problems, as they see them, but simply to decide cases before them according to the rule of law." John G. Roberts, Jr., United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary Questionnaire 66, http:// 20050802roberts2.pdf) (August 2, 2005). In recognition of this philosophy, we consistently have adhered to "principles of judicial restraint [that] prevent [courts] from creating a cause of action for damages in all but the most extreme circumstances." Bandoni v. State, 715 A.2d 580, 595 (R.I.1998). Indeed, we long have held "that the creation of new causes of action is a legislative function." Accent Store Design, Inc. v. Marathon House, Inc., 674 A.2d 1223, 1226 (R.I.1996). After all, the judiciary's "duty [is] to determine the law, not to make the law." City of Pawtucket v. Sundlun, 662 A.2d 40, 57 (R.I.1995). "To do otherwise, even if based on sound policy and the best of intentions, would be to substitute our will for that of a body democratically elected by the citizens of this state and to overplay our proper role in the theater of Rhode Island government." DeSantis v. Prelle, 891 A.2d 873, 881 (R.I.2006).

I Facts and Travel

It is undisputed that lead poisoning constitutes a public health crisis that has plagued and continues to plague this country, particularly its children. The General Assembly has declared that although "[c]hildhood lead poisoning is completely preventable," G.L. 1956 § 23-24.6-2(3), it is "the most severe environmental health problem in Rhode Island." Section 23-24.6-3. Indeed, Providence has received the unfavorable nickname "the lead paint capital" because of its disproportionately large number of children with elevated blood-lead levels. Lead Industries Association Inc., 898 A.2d at 1235 (quoting Peter B. Lord, Are lead-paint firms liable for damages?, The Providence Journal, June 18, 1999, at A-1).

A Dangers of Lead Poisoning

Lead is a toxic chemical that contributes to the "most common environmental disease of young children." Office of Lead-Based Paint Abatement and Poisoning Prevention, 61 Fed. Reg. 29170 (June 7, 1996) (quoting Strategic Plan for the Elimination of Lead Poisoning, Centers for Disease Control (CDC), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Atlanta, Georgia (1991...

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