October 15, 2018 / 1:57 PM / 9 months ago

UPDATE 1-U.S. Supreme Court rebuffs companies over lead paint liability

(Adds background on case, paragraphs 4-11)

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON, Oct 15 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected appeals by three paint manufacturers challenging a California court ruling that held them liable for millions of dollars in damages relating to the use of lead paint decades ago.

The justices left in place the lower court's 2017 ruling that endorsed a trial judge's finding that the companies had created a "public nuisance" by concealing dangers posed by lead paint, which can cause brain damage if ingested.

The appeals were brought by: Sherwin-Williams Co; ConAgra, part of parent company Conagra Brands Inc; and NL Industries Inc, which is owned by Valhi Inc.

Lead paint was banned by the U.S. government in 1978 for use in homes but remains a top cause of lead poisoning, especially for children. The California appeals court said the companies were liable for the cost of lead abatement in homes built before 1951.

The long-running litigation, dating back to 2000, stems from a complaint filed against the companies by 10 local jurisdictions in California, including Los Angeles County and the city of San Francisco.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg in 2014 ordered the companies to pay $1.15 billion into a fund used to locate lead paint in homes in seven counties and three cities and then to remove it from those residences.

Kleinberg found the companies had knowledge of the hazards of lead paint, including the dangers of childhood lead poisoning, when they promoted lead paint for domestic use.

The three companies sought Supreme Court review after the California Supreme Court in February refused to hear their appeal. They have said that there is no evidence any injury traced to lead poisoning came directly from their products and that liability was imposed based on the companies' promotion of lead paint at a time when it was legally sold.

The companies argued that the liability decision violated their due process rights and the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment protection of free speech.

A three-judge panel of the California Court of Appeals, 6th Appellate District, in 2017 largely upheld Kleinberg's decision, but nixed the companies' liability for post-1950 homes.

Similar cases have been brought against paint manufacturers in Rhode Island, New Jersey and other places in the United States.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Nate Raymond; Editing by Will Dunham

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