Cans of paint
Cans of paint - 
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Bob Moon: It's a legal battle that's dragged on for nearly a decade: Who's responsible for lead paint poisoning?

Today, the Rhode Island Supreme Court overturned a landmark ruling that had held three paint companies liable for billions of dollars in cleanup costs.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk Sam Eaton reports.

Sam Eaton: Today's decision reverses the sole victory to date against the lead paint industry. Paint makers used lead pigment to make paint more durable until 1978, when studies linked it to childhood learning disabilities and brain damage. The ruling releases Sherwin Williams, NL Industries and Millennium Holdings from having to pay billions of dollars to clean up hundreds of thousands of Rhode Island homes built before the ban came into effect.

Sherwin Williams lawyer Charles Moellenberg calls the ruling a victory for common sense.

Charles Moellenberg: The problem was the plaintiffs were trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

It's virtually impossible to identify which company's paint was used in specific buildings prior to the ban, so Rhode Island instead sued on the grounds that the paint's collective presence was a public nuisance. Moellenberg says that gave the state free reign to hold the companies responsible without any specific evidence. The Rhode Island Supreme Court agreed with Moellenberg, dealing a blow to lead poisoning activists.

Patrick MacRoy with the Alliance for Healthy Homes says the ruling essentially passes the buck.

Patrick MacRoy: So, the end result of the Rhode Island court case is going to be a shift of the cost burden towards the people that weren't responsible for creating the problem to start with.

Macroy says there's still hope for pending lawsuits in Ohio and California. The paint companies disagree. Moellenberg predicts today's decision will be the closing chapter in a decade-long book of lead paint litigation. The end result, he says, is that the responsibility stays where it belongs -- with the landlords and homeowners.

I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

Follow Sam Eaton at @eatonsam