Akron joins East Cleveland and Toledo in litigating over lead - Cincy and Columbus expected to follow

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Mon, 10/16/2006 - 11:38.

 Thanks to Ed Morrison for forwarding to me an Akron Beacon Journal article about Akron filing a lawsuit against U.S. paint makers over lead hazards in their community. I don't believe the Cleveland Plain Dealer bothered to report on this important development, and the PD certainly didn't do as good a job of reporting on related litigation in East Cleveland and Toledo, a few weeks prior. Wonder why? As defendant Sherwin Williams' spokesman Bob Wells said, "Ohio is the last place we thought cities would bite their own'', and, in the case of mainstream local media, that line of reasoning holds true... they earn money from Sherwin Williams advertising and don't cover the lead issue in Northeast Ohio, even as 1,000s of children in Cuyahoga County are lead poisoned each year and so fail in life, trapping our core population in toxic poverty. With such a realization that our economy is held hostage by large corporate interests, it is time for the community to get serious about this issue... especially as Sherwin Williams and their attorneys act to intimidate our cities and deceive the people and the courts. Read on!

Despite what Sherwin Williams claims in their counter suit against the cities suing them over lead poisoning, that "the law firm Motley Rice, which also represented Rhode Island in its suit, solicited several Ohio cities" to litigate over lead, I actually approached Motley Rice in February of this year asking them to help Ohio and the city of East Cleveland address our lead poisoning crisis, as they are helping Rhode Island and 26 other states, so the primary claim of Sherwin Williams' lawsuit is false... Motley Rice did not "solicit" Ohio cities, but rather I asked for their help for Ohio and our region's most impoverished and lead poisoned city, East Cleveland. Other cities have had the wisdom to follow suit.

Further, Sherwin Williams spokesman Well's claim "Sherwin-Williams was "very surprised'' that Ohio cities would legally challenge the paint makers and hold them liable for what he called legal actions years ago", is false, as this past February 25, 2006, I notified my former corporate counsel at Jones Day, the uber-powerful Cleveland based law firm representing Sherwin Williams in defense of an onslaught of such public nuisance suits across the country, that litigation was forthcoming. I notified other counsel at Jones Day, including the partner in charge of the Cleveland office, of these developments over this Summer. Jones Day had significant warning and time to bring Sherwin Williams up to spreed, and address the problem. And, I know for a fact, health professionals all over the region have been trying in good faith for years to get Sherwin Williams to collaborate with them and the community to address the lead poisoning issue here and Sherwin Williams has refused to help. Sherwin Williams does not even sell lead testing kits in their 1,000s of stores, or provide lead poisoning information to customers, which I believe is unlawful.

In the article below is stated "Wells said the company wants to meet with cities to present its side." I do not believe this is truthful, as I know of at least one large NEO city that has met with Sherwin Williams and was not supported at all in their lead eradication efforts. All Sherwin Willliams seems to want to say to anyone about this issue is don't ask Sherwin Williams.

To learn all you need to know about lead poisoning and the fight for eradication in Northeast Ohio, just follow the links in this section of REALNEO - see GCLAC box to the left. There is more unique insight about lead poisoning on this site than just about any place on Earth. Over a year ago, I happened to attend a forum at the City Club of Cleveland about lead poisoning, and a follow-on session on local efforts to eradicate lead poisoning, called the Greater Cleveland Lead Advisory Council (GCLAC), and I realized lead poisoning is the greatest problem with economic development in the region. Being interested in local economic development, I attended more GCLAC meetings and was shortly asked to serve as the co-chair of their Infrastructure and Sustainability sub-committee and thus on the initiative's Steering Committee. Through that, I also became involved with another related lead eradication initiative in the region - Concerned Citizens Organized Against Lead (CCOAL), and through all these efforts I became quite informed about the lead issue in Northeast Ohio, and quite activist.

I am very aware how dangerous it is to go against Sherwin Williams and Jones Day. In the case of lead litigation, the Jones Day/Sherwin Williams approach is to sue the cities for suing Sherwin Williams... an approach the cities broadly dismiss as intimidation.  From my personal experience, shortly after I made Jones Day (at that time, my corporate counsel) aware I was helping Motley Rice bring lead litigation to Ohio, my former business partner Peter Holmes, whose father Allen Holmes was former managing partner of Jones Day, attempted to destroy REALNEO (this very portal), and Jones Day withdrew as counsel for the parent organization, REALinks, that Peter and I had spent over a year developing. I believe all that was a result of this portal's support of lead poisoning eradication.

Obviously, this situation will escalate and become internationally significant. This is the issue that will help the world determine what they think of Northeast Ohio and Ohio. The most pathetic observation I've made since it was announced that East Cleveland sued Sherwin Williams has been that many people in this NEO community, who are completely ignorant about lead poisoning and its harm of our children and economy, automatically condemn the cities for trying to protect their citizens. The standard response has been to accuse these cities of trying to harm a major employer. I must ask, are you so desperate to claim you have a Fortune 500 company here, or protect some corporate jobs, that you will harm 10,000s of innocent children a year statewide? Do you want to live in a state viewed as a public health disaster, with citizens so mentally incompetent all they are able to do is work at WalMart, because that is what we have now, and the economy shows it to all of us here in NEO and far and wide. Read the following article from the Akron Beacon, and keep reading up on this issue, as being informed may help you protect your children or grandchildren from lead poisoning, and protect your economy from continued decline.


Akron sues eight makers of lead paint

Akron Beacon Journal: By Bob Downing

The health risk from lead in paint to thousands of children has prompted the city of Akron to file a lawsuit against U.S. paint makers.

Akron's 26-page lawsuit names eight companies, including Cleveland-based Sherwin-Williams Co.

The suit seeks:

• Removal of lead paint from public and private buildings in the city.

• Unspecified damages for the city, which has spent millions over the years on its lead-abatement program.

• Money for a public education campaign and further preventive screenings.

The suit was filed Oct. 4 and comes in the wake of last winter's first-ever jury decision against paint makers, in a Rhode Island case.

The jury recommended a cleanup that could cost the companies more than $3.5 billion.

Lead-based paint was banned in 1978 after scientific studies showed exposure to paint chips and dust can reduce intelligence and cause major behavioral and medical problems, especially in children.

No one is sure how many Akron children might be impacted by lead exposures.

Any child younger than 6 living in a house built before 1978 could be at risk, said Wallace Chambers Jr., a spokesman for the Akron City Health Department.

Akron has 92,000 households, and 10 percent of them have children under age 6.

In the past, city officials have estimated 25 percent of children in some inner-city neighborhoods are threatened and that 1 in 10 Akron children are affected by lead paint. Akron typically treats 100 to 150 children a year for lead poisoning.

``Akron's lead paint poisoning problem is among the worst in the state of Ohio,'' said John McConnell Jr. of the South Carolina law firm Motley Rice, which is representing Akron in the suit.

The companies say they should not be held responsible for practices that were legal at the time.

``We will aggressively defend the company against every one of these suits. They do not have a lot of merit, and the fight in Rhode Island is far from over,'' said Sherwin-Williams spokesman Bob Wells

``This suit is about forcing the defendants to clean up their mess before another generation of Akron children is irreparably harmed by the effects of lead paint,'' countered Thomas W. Bevan of Bevan & Associates of Northfield and Akron's spokesman on the suit. ``It's time to do something to fix the problem once and for all.''

The Akron suit, assigned to Summit County Common Pleas Judge Brenda Burnham Unruh, also names Millenium Holdings LLC of Cockeysville, Md.; NL Industries Inc. of Dallas; Conagra Grocery Product Co. of Omaha; Du Pont of Wilmington, Del.; Atlantic Richfield Co. of Los Angeles; Cytec Industries of West Paterson, N.J.; and American Cyanamid Co. of Wayne, N.J.

Additional companies could be named later.

The Akron suit follows similar suits in Ohio filed against paint makers by Toledo and East Cleveland. Columbus and Cincinnati have said they expect to file similar suits.

The Ohio cities filed suits before the state legislature could introduce a bill that could have blocked such suits.

Sherwin-Williams filed its own suit on Oct. 4 in federal court in Columbus against the Ohio cities.

The suit claims that the law firm Motley Rice, which also represented Rhode Island in its suit, solicited several Ohio cities to file similar public-nuisance lawsuits, Wells said.

``These trial lawyers, attempting to garner huge contingency fees, have allied with certain Ohio trial lawyers, to instigate this new wave of litigation by certain Ohio cities,'' Sherwin-Williams said in its suit.

The company is asking the court to block the suits, saying it is unfair that the company is being held responsible for actions that were lawful decades ago. The company says property owners should be held liable for the current health threat that lead poses to children.

The company said health problems created by lead can be managed and cities should look at how children are being exposed. Wells said the company wants to meet with cities to present its side.

Bevan countered that Sherwin-Williams' suit has ``no merit at all and is designed to harass the cities and try to get publicity.''

The Ohio suits are the first filed against paint makers since the Rhode Island jury in February found against three paint makers. Similar suits are pending in six states: Wisconsin, New Jersey, California, New York, Texas and Missouri.

A jury found three companies liable and asked the judge to order them to remove lead paint from an estimated 300,000 houses, a step that could cost up to $3.74 billion.

Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Michael A. Silverstein has yet to rule on the case.

The three parties were Sherwin-Williams, NL Industries and Millenium Holdings.

One defendant, Atlantic Richfield, was found not liable. Another defendant, Du Pont, settled with Rhode Island for $10 million. The other defendants face separate trials.

Sherwin-Williams, with annual sales of $7.2 billion in 2005, has 30,000 employees, including 3,000 in Northeast Ohio.

Wells said Sherwin-Williams is disappointed that Akron and Mayor Don Plusquellic would file such a lawsuit against the paint makers.

Plusquellic is a champion of economic development and regionalism in Northeast Ohio, and such lawsuits have a chilling effect on companies, he said.

Sherwin-Williams was ``very surprised'' that Ohio cities would legally challenge the paint makers and hold them liable for what he called legal actions years ago, he said. ``Ohio is the last place we thought cities would bite their own,'' he said.

Plusquellic is not talking for now.

``We will not comment while litigation is pending,'' said city spokesman Mark Williamson.

Last year, Akron received $4 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to remove lead hazards from lower income homes.

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning [at] thebeaconjournal [dot] com. Staff writer John Higgins contributed to this report.