The Seventh Circuit has reversed a $6 million verdict against The Sherwin-Williams Co. and two other paint makers, undoing a trial on allegations that they sold lead-based paint that caused brain damage to three men as youths, finding the district court had improperly expanded Wisconsin liability law.
On Thursday, a three-judge panel found that while many of the companies’ arguments on appeal were without merit, the trial court made three legal errors in the suit brought by Cesar Sifuentes, Glenn Burton Jr. and Ravon Owens that shaped the case and introduced significant prejudice against Sherwin-Williams and fellow defendants DuPont Co. and Armstrong Containers Inc.
In particular, the panel found the trial court had expanded the scope of the state Supreme Court’s 2005 Thomas v. Mallett decision, which held that the makers of lead paint could only be held liable in such cases in their capacity as makers of the pigment containing lead, not as makers of the paint.
In June 2019, the Milwaukee jury awarded $2 million to each plaintiff following a monthlong trial, finding that the paint makers were all responsible for brain damage that caused each man to lose at least 10 IQ points.
Sifuentes, Burton and Owens, all adults now, were screened for lead poisoning between ages 2 and 3 and were found to have high levels of lead in their blood. The jury’s verdict, which was later reduced to $4.8 million, found that Armstrong, DuPont and Sherwin-Williams sold white lead carbonate pigment that was “defective and unreasonably dangerous due to inadequate warnings” and that each was a cause of the plaintiffs’ injuries.
The panel wrote that the district court further erred in first ruling that the plaintiffs had to prove their injuries were caused by the companies’ failure to warn and that adequate warnings would have changed the behavior of the people who bought and applied the paint, but then ruling post-trial that they did not have to offer such proof.