Hearing in lead paint case to be broadcast on Web

BOSTON Thu May 8, 2008 1:20pm EDT

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BOSTON May 8 (Reuters) - Rhode Island's top court plans a live Internet broadcast of next week's oral arguments in the appeal of a landmark lead-paint decision.

Three former manufacturers of lead paint have asked the Rhode Island Supreme Court to overturn a Feb. 22, 2006, jury verdict that could force them to pay billions of dollars to clean up contaminated paint around the state.

Chief Justice Frank Williams authorized the Webcast, scheduled for May 15, "because of the wide national interest in the case," an advisory said. The Webcast from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. can be accessed on www.courts.ri.gov/

Rhode Island accused paint manufacturers of covering up the risk of lead paint in its lawsuit filed in 1999, the first in the nation to hold paint makers responsible. The widely watched suit could trigger a wave of litigation against the industry.

The three former lead paint makers -- Sherwin-Williams Co (SHW.N), NL Industries Inc (NL.N) and Millennium Holdings -- were ordered to clean up contaminated paint in the state, which could cost as much as $3 billion.

Rhode Island's case could influence court decisions in other states, counties and cities where lead-poisoning lawsuits are pending, and it has drawn similarities with multibillion-dollar judgments against tobacco makers.

Lead paint was banned by the U.S. government in 1978 after studies showed it caused health problems in children, including learning disabilities and permanent brain damage.

But it remains widespread, especially in older homes in the northeastern United States. Rhode Island children routinely test above the national average for blood-lead levels.

Rhode Island authorities say more than 30,000 children were poisoned by lead paint in the state, with an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 homes contaminated by the paint. The cost of cleaning one home is estimated at up to $15,000.

The paint companies had denied that they were directly responsible, saying landlords, not paint makers, should be held accountable for conditions that expose children to lead. A Rhode Island court in 2006 denied punitive damage claims against the paint companies.

(Reporting by Jason Szep, editing by Dave Zimmerman)

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