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State of Rhode Island v. Lead Industries Association, Inc

    Brief Fact Summary.

    The Rhode Island (Plaintiff) Attorney General brought a public nuisance action against lead paint manufacturers (Defendants).

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    A public nuisance action cannot be brought against product manufacturers if the products do not unreasonably interfere with a right common to the general public and the manufacturers do not have control over the product when it caused the harm. 

    Facts.

    The Attorney General for Plaintiff brought a public nuisance action against Defendants, former paint manufacturers whose products contained lead. The trial court denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss and Defendant appealed.

    Issue.

    Can a public nuisance action be brought against product manufacturers whose product does not interfere with a public right and who does not have control over the product when it caused the harm?

    Held.

    (Williams, C.J.) No. A public nuisance action cannot be brought against product manufacturers if the products do not unreasonably interfere with a right common to the general public and the manufacturers do not have control over the product when it caused the harm.  Public nuisance has three elements: 1) an unreasonable interference, 2) with a right common to the general public, 3) by a person or people with control over the instrumentality alleged to have created the nuisance when the damage occurred. To satisfy the first element, the interference must deprive all members of the community of a right to a resource to which they are entitled. A public right is an indivisible resource shared by the public, such as air, water, or public rights of way. The right of an individual child not to be sickened by lead paint is not a public right. This action also fails the third element as the manufacturers of the paint were not still in control of the paint when the harm was done to the children of Rhode Island. This element is important in public nuisance cases because the principal remedy in these cases is abatement. Plaintiff may have a remedy against Defendants through product liability law. Public nuisance law centers on the abatement of activities that annoy or bother the public, but product liability law holds manufacturers liable for harmful products. Reversed.

    Discussion.

    The court held that the third element was crucial in public nuisance cases because it related to the ability of the defendant to prevent harm. The court also defined “public right†as an indivisible resource such as air, land, or water. These limitations on public nuisance law make it inapplicable to “stream of commerce†cases. Those cases properly fall under product liability law. Here, the state tried to expand public nuisance law to include stream of commerce issues, but the court resisted this expansion of the common law, finding it inconsistent with the incremental growth of the common law and the legislature’s responsibility to determine public policy.


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