Lawmakers back bill on lead paint

Rosenberg, Hoffman support proposal to make lawsuits easier

Cleanup to be announced

Manufacturers would share damages based on Md. sales

January 28, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler and William F. Zorzi Jr. | Timothy B. Wheeler and William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

Two Baltimore lawmakers are backing legislation that would make it easier for victims of lead poisoning to sue manufacturers of lead-based paint for damages.

The bill -- which would hold paint manufacturers responsible for harming thousands of Maryland children based on how much lead-based paint they sold in the state -- would help Baltimore attorney Peter G. Angelos pursue two lawsuits he has filed against the pigment industry.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg said yesterday that he is drafting a bill that would allow "market-share liability" claims against lead-paint manufacturers in Maryland courts. The Baltimore Democrat said he agreed to introduce the bill at the urging of John A. Pica, an attorney in the Angelos firm.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said she is willing to co-sponsor the legislation.

"I think on the lead-paint issue, we've ignored the fact that lead paint companies knew of the dangers," the Baltimore Democrat said.

Market-share liability is a legal theory under which the makers of lead-based paint would share in all the damages caused by the toxic metal based on their sales, even if it can't be proved that a particular product poisoned a specific child.

Advocates for lead-poisoned children say such a law would significantly improve the chances of winning claims against paint manufacturers. Industry representatives have denied knowingly harming children and have successfully fought market-share claims in Maryland and elsewhere.

Word of the proposed legislation comes as Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley prepare to announce a combined effort to reduce the health scourge that has troubled the city for decades.

Tony White, O'Malley's press secretary, said the announcement today will include a city commitment of $6 million in federal money toward lead abatement.

Carol M. Browner, administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, also is expected to attend the announcement, but it was unclear last night whether new federal money will be coming from the EPA.

The market-share legislation would complement government efforts, legislators said, by generating funds from private sources for costly housing cleanups.

"If there's some way to create a pot of money to detoxify this housing, then some of the money should come from the people who manufactured that paint," Hoffman said.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, chairman of the city delegation, said he is considering signing onto such a bill. "They have some very, very, very compelling information as to who knew what and when about the whole lead paint problem," McFadden said.

There have been many successful lawsuits against individual landlords on behalf of lead-poisoned children, but paint and pigment producers have successfully fended off attempts to hold them responsible for the damage caused by their products.

Courts have required plaintiffs to prove which manufacturer's paint poisoned a particular child, a legal burden that has proven insurmountable.

Angelos filed two lawsuits in September alleging that paint manufacturers conspired for more than a half-century to hide the hazards of lead paint and to defeat restrictions on its use.

One suit, a class action filed on behalf of a million Maryland homeowners, seeks compensation for the cost of removing lead-based paint from their houses. Another seeks damages for six Baltimore children who suffered severe lead poisoning from 1995 to 1998, allegedly because of exposure to paint and lead from gasoline.

The suit seeks $5 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages from 15 makers of lead paint, lead pigment and gasoline additives.

Lead was an ingredient in most paint used in the United States until it was banned by federal law in 1978. Baltimore outlawed its use in houses in 1951.

Pica said that although Angelos believes he can prove that paint manufacturers conspired, he probably will amend his lawsuits to include the market-share claim if the legislation is approved.

"They don't deserve any kind of protection," Pica said of paint manufacturers. "They should be in jail."

Market-share legislation figured in the recent indictments of Baltimore Del. Tony E. Fulton and Annapolis lobbyist Gerard E. Evans. Federal prosecutors have accused the two of engaging in a "bell-ringing" scheme in which Fulton allegedly threatened to introduce such legislation so that Evans could collect fees from paint manufacturers to fight the proposal.

Rosenberg has a long history of advocating solutions to the lead-poisoning problem.

"This isn't the first time I've worked on legislation that says the paint industry should be held to account," Rosenberg said. He unsuccessfully introduced a bill several years ago that would have taxed paint sales to help pay for abatement of lead-paint hazards in homes.

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