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.”