Targeting another deep-pockets industry, Baltimore attorney Peter G. Angelos filed two lawsuits yesterday to force paint manufacturers to remove lead paint from a million Maryland homes and to pay millions of dollars in damages to six lead-poisoned Baltimore children.
Both lawsuits, filed in Baltimore Circuit Court, allege that manufacturers conspired for more than a half-century to hide the hazards of lead poisoning and defeat proposed restrictions on lead-based paint.
The suits represent a major assault on paint manufacturers by an attorney who has won hundreds of millions of dollars in similar litigation against the asbestos and tobacco industries.
Angelos said in an interview last night that he sees "strong similarities" in the conduct of the lead industry.
"We have a conspiracy that went on for 60 years," Angelos said.
"The companies and their trade associations acted together to suppress medical knowledge and to influence scientific inquiries into the hazards of lead paint."
While many small-scale lawsuits against landlords on behalf of lead-poisoned children have been successful, previous attempts to hold the paint and pigment makers responsible for damage caused by their products have been rejected by most courts.
Judges have required plaintiffs to prove precisely which manufacturer's paint contaminated a particular house and poisoned a particular child, a burden that has proven impossible in past cases.
But Angelos said he and his associates, Ted Flerlage and Ronald Richardson, will be able to overcome that legal obstacle by proving that major paintand pigment manufacturers colluded to preserve sales of lead paint in the face of mounting evidence of its dangers.
"They were partners in an illegal and improper enterprise," Angelos said.
Jeffrey Miller, executive director of the Lead Industries Association in New York, and Thomas Graves, general counsel for the National Paint and Coatings Association in Washington, could not be reached for comment last night.
In the past, they have denied that the industry covered up evidence on lead poisoning and pointed to voluntary industry support for programs to remove lead paint and help its victims.
Finding new targets
The majority owner of the Orioles, Angelos is one of several prominent plaintiffs' attorneys who, having made fortunes suing asbestos and tobacco manufacturers, are looking for new targets.
Some are suing gun makers, others have gone after the manufacturer of the banned diet drug known as fen-phen, and several have turned their sights on makers of lead paint.
Lead was an ingredient in most American paint used in this century until it was banned by federal law in 1978, long after many other countries had prohibited it.
Thousands of American children are poisoned each year when they ingest chipping and peeling paint in dilapidated housing, suffering mental retardation and damage to internal organs.
In Maryland, 1,233 children under the age of 6 were poisoned in 1997, and 7,763 children were found to have elevated levels of lead in their bodies, according to the state Department of the Environment.
The Angelos lawsuits outline the long history of what they call "catastrophic" actions by the industry that led to the scourge of lead poisoning.
Early in the century, the suits say, lead-based paint "was known to be hazardous to children and pregnant women by the defendants' corporate executives at the highest level."
As early as 1904, the suit says, the Sherwin-Williams Co., a defendant in the suit, distributed to its sales representatives a study conducted by the French government that warned of lead dangers.
Lead paint is "poisonous in a large degree, both for the workmen and for the inhabitants of a house painted with lead colors," Sherwin-Williams wrote in its report, the suit says.
Still, the suit charges, the company began selling the paint six years later.
One of the lawsuits filed yesterday is a class action on behalf of about 1 million Maryland homeowners whose houses contain "unacceptable levels" of lead paint.
Six couples, six children
The suit names six Maryland couples as class representatives and seeks compensation for the cost of removing the paint, estimated as at least $20,000 per house, as well as compensation for medical harm and reduced property values.
The other lawsuit seeks damages for six Baltimore children: Reginald Smith Jr., 6; Shatara Smith, 5; Christian Brantley, 3; Brandon Hamilton, 4; and 2-year-old twins Gerald and Octavia Shorter.
All suffered severe lead poisoning between 1995 and 1998 as a result of exposure to paint and to dust contaminated by exhaust fumes from leaded gasoline, the suit says.
The suit, which seeks $5 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages for each defendant, targets 15 makers of lead paint, lead pigment and gasoline additives, including such familiar names as Atlantic Richfield, Dupont, Glidden and SCM Corp.
Two trade associations are also named.
Pierre R. Erville, a Silver Spring attorney who has worked with lead-poisoning victims, said he believes the class action is the first attempt in the country to force the industry to compensate homeowners for the cost of removing lead paint.
He said the suit on behalf of the Baltimore children is not so novel.
Erville said he is skeptical that Angelos will succeed in proving an industrywide conspiracy.
"Attorneys have alleged conspiracy in the past, and I don't think they've ever prevailed," Erville said. "But maybe they've uncovered new evidence."
Erville noted that Angelos' considerable resources might make him a tougher opponent than the lead industry has faced in the past.
Angelos earned his fortune suing asbestos makers and is expected to earn at least several hundred million dollars in fees for representing Maryland against the tobacco industry in a lawsuit that won the state a $4.4 billion settlement.
"It's usually the industry that has unlimited resources," Erville said. "But Angelos may be able to drag the battle out long enough to win the war."