New Supreme Court ruling could make it easier to hold corporations liable for things like climate change

A new SCOTUS ruling could open the door to corporate liability, making it easier to fight for things like climate change awareness, gun control, and the opioid crisis.

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A new ruling from the Supreme Court in two cases, ConAgra Grocery Products v. California and Sherwin-Williams v. California has the potential to open the door for the public to hold corporations accountable for knowingly endangering public health or the planet.

On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear appeals from paint manufacturers, Sherwin-Williams, ConAgra, and NL Industries, on a ruling that requires them to pay over $400 million for lead paint inspections and removals in California homes and for their role in promoting lead paint over several decades.

The cases were brought against paint manufacturers by ten California governments, including Los Angeles County, in the form of a product-liability suit back in 2000. Lawyers argued that “cumulative, coordinated promotional efforts were enormously successful, resulting in sustained, increased, and prolonged use of lead paint in residences throughout the jurisdictions.” Originally the claims in the case were judged as flawless by judges, but lawyers refiled the suit in 2011 based on the public nuisance doctrine.

The case was successful when a state court judge in Santa Clara County ruled for California in 2014. An appeals court later held up this judgment, after which the manufacturers appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.

The manufacturers will be responsible for $409 million based off of an estimation of the cost of inspection and abatement in more than a million California homes built since 1951.

The three manufacturers have claimed that the outcome for these cases could set a precedent for corporate liability lawsuits. The ruling potentially establishes a precedent that businesses that make products they know can cause harm to the people and the planet must pay for their offenses.

As the Los Angeles Times stated:

Business lawyers said they feared the California ruling based on the “public nuisance” doctrine will give a green light to other suits seeking to hold manufacturers liable for damage inflicted on the public, including the opioid crisis and climate change.

“This is very significant victory for the tens of thousands of California children who have been poisoned by lead paint,” said Greta S. Hansen, a lawyer for Santa Clara County which led the lawsuit brought on behalf of 10 municipalities, including Los Angeles County. “Sherwin Williams and its co-defendants knew their product was toxic and still sold it to unwitting families. The case will provide the funds needed to protect future generations of California’s children from the devastating effect of lead paint.”

In August of this year the U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a legal brief in support of the lead paint makers, claiming, “just in the last twelve months, in federal courts alone, at least 80 new public nuisance cases of this sort have been filed by states and other government entities against American businesses, all seeking to impose sweeping liability.”
There has been especially a recent influx of state and local governments launching lawsuits in an attempt to hold major oil and gas companies accountable for their role in global warming. UCLA environmental law expert Sean Hecht believes “the cases are strikingly similar.”
So far none of the climate suits have succeeded, but this new ruling could potentially impact future and ongoing cases.
Consumer use of lead paint was outlawed by the federal government in 1978, but millions of homes built before then may still have the old paint. The EPA states that: “If the paint is in good shape, the lead paint is usually not a problem” but “deteriorating lead-based paint (peeling, chipping, chalking, cracking, damaged, or damp) is a hazard and needs immediate attention.”
Health risks, which are especially dangerous for young children, include behavioral and learning problems; lower IQ and hyperactivity; slowed growth; hearing problems; and anemia. For pregnant women, lead exposure can put the mother at risk for miscarriage; cause pre-term birth or low birth weight; impact brain, kidneys, and nervous system development; and increase the likelihood of learning or behavioral problems.

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