INDIANAPOLIS (July 1, 2008) – By reversing a lower court’s decision that found lead pigment manufacturers liable for childhood lead poisoning under public nuisance law, the Rhode Island Supreme Court prevented an unwarranted, dangerous, and unpredictable expansion of liability, according to the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC). NAMIC had filed an amicus brief in the case, strongly arguing against such expansion.
“This decision reestablishes that product liability laws – not public nuisance laws – are the proper means for claims against product manufacturers,” said Paul Tetrault, NAMIC’s Northeast state affairs manager. “The court has rejected another attempt by a state attorney general to improperly use public nuisance laws to circumvent the well-defined structure of product liability laws.”
In the case, State of Rhode Island v. Lead Industries Association et. al., the high court unanimously ruled that the state did not and could not allege facts that would “fall within the parameters of what would constitute public nuisance under Rhode Island law.” The court noted that the defendant manufacturers in the case did not interfere with a public right and were not in control of the lead pigment at the time the lead caused harm, both of which would be necessary in order to bring a claim for public nuisance. The court also noted that public nuisance has never been applied to products and public nuisance laws and products liability laws are distinct and not intended to overlap.
NAMIC joined with other organizations in filing an amicus brief due to concerns about the impact of liability expansion. “Under the trial court’s application of public nuisance law in this case, the government would have near limitless ability to impose liability on an industry if its products could at some point contribute to an inherent risk to enough people,” the organizations argued in their brief. “Any business that ever lawfully made or sold a product could be held liable in Rhode Island at the whim of the attorney general if the product category as a whole were misused or not properly maintained by certain members of the public and, as a result, became associated with a potential hazard.”
The result would have been the creation of a cause of action to which there would be practically no defense, Tetrault explained.
“The Rhode Island Supreme Court’s decision tracks with the amicus brief in significant respects regarding what has to be proven in order to bring a public nuisance claim; and it expresses appreciation to the groups that filed it for helping to address novel arguments,” Tetrault said. “The decision is consistent with rulings by supreme courts in Missouri, New Jersey, and Illinois rejecting product-based public nuisance claims.”
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