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Bay Area cities spent 19 years suing over lead paint, settled for less

Santa Clara County and San Francisco will receive less than what they won at trial five years ago

Workers in hazmat suits stripping old paint from a house. Caution tape in the foreground warns: “Lead Hazard.” Photo by Jamie Hooper/Shutterstock

Earlier this month, Santa Clara County finally settled a nearly 20-year-old lawsuit over deadly lead paint that included nine other jurisdictions (including San Francisco), to the tune of $305 million.

For an idea of just how long and convoluted this legal confrontation was, consider that the counties are now settling with paint manufacturers despite the fact that they already won the case at trial more than five years ago. Further, the judge awarded the cities and counties damages more than three times what they’re settling for now.

The legal course has been so painstaking and difficult that the Santa Clara City Counsel et al. decided that settling for less was the only way to move forward.

In 2000, Santa Clara sued five major paint companies, including Sherwin-Williams and Atlantic-Richfield, claiming that they sold dangerous lead-based paint for decades while knowing its risks.

“The people have been directly injured due to defendants’ century-long scheme of promoting misinformation and material falsehoods,” reads an amended 2011 version of the original complaint.

The county wanted companies to have to cover the cost of cleaning up lead-based hazards in communities. San Francisco joined the suit in 2001, and eventually Alameda County, San Mateo County, Solano County, Monterey County, Ventura County, Los Angeles County, and both Oakland and San Diego as cities signed on as well.

Although the original litigation stretches back to the beginning of the century, the trial didn’t happen until the end of 2013, and a judgment didn’t come down until 2014.

The nearly decade and a half in the meantime was filled with byzantine legal maneuverings and setbacks that went back and forth for years.

As Judge James Kleinberg laid out in his eventual 2014 ruling, the original complaint alleged charges like fraud, negligence, unfair business practices, and public nuisance. An earlier judge in the case threw out the entire complaint, but the counties successfully appealed and later had the charges reinstated.

Then further challenges and decisions whittled the complaint down to just a single public nuisance allegation.

At one point Sherwin-Williams filed a crossclaim trying to persuade the courts that paint companies weren’t actually liable for deadly lead paint at all, since the hazard only happens when homeowners allow old paint to degrade—around and around the legal circus went, year after year.

Eventually Kleinberg ruled against the companies, finding that “defendants, to varying degrees, sold lead paint with actual and constructive knowledge that it was harmful.”

Of the defendants’ counter arguments, Kleinberg noted that they consisted mostly of statistical claims, but “when translated into the lives of children that is not a persuasive position.”

Kleingberg ordered payments of more than $1.15 billion, including more than $80 million to San Francisco and more than $103 million to Santa Clara County.

But more than five years later, the plaintiffs were no closer to collecting, as more appeals cut the original sum down to half. Then the companies threatened to retaliate by suing property owners for not keeping up their homes—and on and on it went.

Photo by Thester11/Wikimedia Commons

The $305-million settlement is a fraction of the original decision, and puts the plaintiffs in the bizarre position of settling on a lawsuit they already won.

But as the Santa Clara County City Counsel’s office put it in a July press release, the deal “ends the threat of further litigation”—which is to say, settling was worth it simply to end the conflict and collect on a portion of what’s owed.

“We have fought to hold these companies accountable for nearly twenty years, and will finally have needed funds to devote to protecting our children from lead poisoning,” Santa Clara County Counsel James R. Williams said after the announcement.

“Lead paint has created a public health crisis for communities in California and across our nation,” San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said in his own statement, also praising the deal.

Under the terms of the deal, San Francisco will get $21 million, while paint companies do not need to admit any wrongdoing.

According to census data, San Francisco has over 317,800 homes that predate regulations against lead-based paint. In Alameda County, it’s more than 429,400, Santa Clara has more than 426,200, and San Mateo County has more than 216,300.

The Center For Disease Control reports that lead may cause learning disabilities and IQ loss, cancer, anemia, infertility, and hypertension, among other things. Children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning.