Lead paint bill is debated

Powerful lobbyists testify on measure to enable lawsuits

March 10, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Maryland's leading corporate lobbyists flocked to a House committee yesterday to urge lawmakers to kill legislation that would make it easier for individuals and governments to recover damages from manufacturers of toxic lead paint.

The bill -- which could open the door to lawsuits rivaling those that led to the national tobacco settlement -- drew opposition from business groups ranging from the Chamber of Commerce to Bell Atlantic Corp. to paint makers themselves.

The lobbyists were bolstered by the support of former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti as they tried to head off a proposal they denounced as an effort to enrich trial lawyers.

The measure was strongly supported by the Baltimore officials and the law firm of Peter G. Angelos. Both could potentially reap millions of dollars from the changes the bill would make in the standards for imposing damages in lead paint lawsuits.

The bill also drew support from advocates for victims of lead paint and from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"For too long, the cost of lead paint has been borne by the innocent, by the infants and children poisoned by this product," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, the Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bill.

Suits seeking to recover damages for injuries or economic losses from lead paint exposure are almost impossible to win because plaintiffs have to show they were injured by the product of a specific manufacturer.

The bill would let people and governments sue the entire industry and recover damages -- if they prove their case -- from each manufacturer based on its market share during the heyday of lead paint sales before 1950.

Lead paint has been banned by the federal government since 1978. The bill would make Maryland the first state to apply the "market share liability" standard to lead paint cases. In children, lead exposure can cause learning disabilities, slowed growth, hyperactivity, impaired hearing and brain damage.

Civiletti, a Baltimore lawyer representing several paint manufacturers, denounced the proposal as "arbitrary" and "capricious."

"You're left with a bizarre set of guesses that the courts have been unwilling to accept," Civiletti told the House Judiciary Committee.

Lead paint poisoning has been a scourge for decades in U.S. cities and towns with high concentrations of older housing units. Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore health commissioner, told the committee that more than 3,300 city children have been diagnosed with lead poisoning.

Beilenson said Baltimore has spent $9 million over five years on lead education, treatment and abatement. He estimated that the city has 50,000 houses that need lead abatement at a cost of roughly $10,000 each.

"The biggest problem we have is nowhere near enough money to abate the lead paint problem," he said. Without the ability to sue the paint companies, it is unclear where the city would find the money for the task, he said.

At times, the hearing turned into a debate over the conduct of the paint industry. Former Sen. John A. Pica Jr., representing Angelos, said companies ignored evidence of lead's dangers for decades.

"This industry knowingly poisoned, knowingly killed, knowingly retarded millions of American babies," Pica said.

Former U.S. Rep. Alan Wheat of Missouri, representing several paint manufacturers, denounced the charges as "inflammatory." He said the industry commissioned studies that eventually led to the ban on lead paint.

"That record deserves to be applauded, not punished," Wheat said.

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