Baseless Lawsuits May Begin and End with California

court gavelCalifornians may not know it, but their courts are creating an unprecedented “super tort” that could be used against anyone that makes and sells a lawful product. Today, it is paint and tomorrow it could be you or your company.

In February, California’s Supreme Court surprised many experts by declining to review a high-profile case against paint and pigment makers that has been in the state’s court system since the early 2000s. In unprecedented rulings, the lower courts are making three companies pay more than a billion dollars to remove lead paint from all private homes built before 1951 across 10 California counties. The only option left for the companies is to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

To some, this may not sound like a case of national importance, but it is. Lawsuits that seek to pursue businesses for money, regardless of wrongdoing, have been tried for four decades. In the past, state courts have stopped this including in Rhode Island, New Jersey and Illinois. This case is the first time a state high court has allowed this type of deep pocket jurisprudence to stand.

The legal theory is a new twist on the centuries-old tort of public nuisance. The lawsuit argues that three companies can be liable for all lead paint remaining in homes today simply because they sold paint containing lead pigment decades ago. The passage of time, the development of knowledge about specific risks and any semblance of actual causation were jettisoned from the case. Incredibly, the lower courts are requiring the companies to remove lead paint from homes even if their paints were never in those homes.

Now, lawyers representing eight California communities are pushing a similar version of public nuisance theory against energy manufacturers. In lawsuits filed last year, they allege the companies are contributing to climate change and, therefore, should be liable for any potential impacts of the global phenomenon. Even though energy products are used by every American and around the world, the lawsuits want to hold a handful of companies responsible. It may be good for politicians seeking headlines or lawyers seeking financial gain, but it won’t solve the problem. It does, however, threaten the jobs of manufacturing workers. U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup agreed that the courts are not the proper venue to address this issue and recently dismissed the complaints brought by San Francisco and Oakland.

With these public nuisance lawsuits in their infancy, along with a similar one brought by New York City, the U.S. Supreme Court should hear the case against the paint manufacturers. The Supreme Court could go a long way in halting the onslaught of baseless lawsuits cropping up across the country.

If the Supreme Court grants review, the plaintiffs may have their work cut out for them. The Court shut down similar lawsuits in the past. In American Electric Power v. Connecticut, a state-led coalition sued six power companies claiming that their emissions were a federal public nuisance. In an 8-0 decision, the Court dismissed the suit, explaining that emissions are not to be regulated by the courts. Similarly, lead paint, once its harms were known, was subject to regulation by the legislative and executive branches— not the courts. If American Electric Power v. Connecticut is any indication, Supreme Court consideration of the lead paint case may help shut the door on these baseless lawsuits.

More than one million Californians work in manufacturing and more than twelve million men and women nationally. These types of lawsuits undermine the fairness of our nation’s legal system, our manufacturing base, and our economy.

Lindsey de la Torre is Executive Director of the National Association of Manufacturers’ Manufacturers Accountability Project.

Comments

  1. If one uses Twitter we are banned from advertising for you and posting to Capital political review.com. To our accounts

  2. Man from Bear River says

    I hope John Cox can make some serious inroads.

    • showandtell says

      I really think he can. After all John Cox’s plans and policies are the antidote to the misery we have been enduring so it would be very foolish to vote for Newsom who is right in line with the same old nonsense that will continue the misery.

      Of course as we get closer to the election we will have to help with get-out-the-vote efforts and such. A high turnout of sensible voters will be key in this race.

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