WASHINGTON - A New York state appeals court has unanimously reversed a decision by a state judge in Buffalo that had allowed plaintiffs in a lead-based paint poisoning case to pursue their argument that companies can be held liable for damages under the so-called "market share" theory of liability. The ruling, seen as a victory for defendants in such cases, reverses a lower-court decision that companies can be held liable for any damages caused by use of a product manufactured within a given time period, according to those companies' proportionate share of the market at that time.
"This rational decision is a welcome pail of water thrown on one of the fires that have been set by plaintiffs' attorneys, whose chance of success is predicated on courts' willingness to adopt novel and unfounded theories of liability and recovery," said Tom Graves, vice president and general counsel of the National Paint & Coatings Association.
In ordering the lower court to reverse its decision, the appellate court sharply distinguished the lead-poisoning situation from a case involving use of the drug DES during pregnancy, which resulted in a rare form of cancer found in female offspring. A Buffalo state trial court judge had cited the DES case in issuing a ruling that had allowed plaintiffs in the lead-poisoning case to proceed with their argument that the market-share liability theory should be applied to lead-pigment manufacturers.
Graves said the appellate panel unanimously agreed with the defendants that the market-share theory should not be applied to this lead-poisoning case, drawing numerous critical distinctions between the unique situation of DES decisions and the allegations of this lead-poisoning case. Unlike the circumstances involving the DES cases, lead-based paint injuries or illnesses could not be traced to any particular manufacturer, because several products over a number of years may have been used that could have caused, or at least contributed to, these illnesses. The illnesses also could have been the result of exposure to other lead sources or other causes altogether.