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A Buffalo attorney played a key role in a billion-dollar court decision last week in California.

Three lead-paint makers were ordered by Santa Clara Superior Court Judge James P. Kleinberg to create the $1.1 billion fund to protect children against lead paint produced decades earlier, despite knowing it endangered human health, especially for children.

Fidelma L. Fitzpatrick, a Nardin Academy and Canisius College graduate who lives with her family in Elmwood Village, was lead trial counsel representing 10 California municipalities, including Los Angeles County and the cities of San Diego and San Francisco.

The verdict calls for the companies to put the money in a special health department fund dedicated to lead-poisoning prevention. The municipalities would then draw an allotted amount for use on lead inspections, repairs and removal effecting hundreds of thousands of homes.

“From a public health standpoint, the decision is absolutely monumental. The good that this will bring to the children of California cannot be understated. Children today and future generations will be protected from lead poisoning because of it,” Fitzpatrick said.

She has worked on the case for the South Carolina-based law firm Motley Rice for the past 13 years.

In the bench trial, Kleinberg found Sherwin-Williams Co., NL Industries and ConAgra Grocery Products Co. guilty of creating a public nuisance by manufacturing and selling lead paint long after knowing of its dangers to human health.

In a statement for the defendants, spokeswoman Bonnie J. Campbell said they sharply disagreed with the decision and would, if necessary, take their case to the state Court of Appeals. This was the second major verdict to go against lead-paint manufacturers. A lengthy lawsuit in Rhode Island, in which Fitzpatrick also played a key role, resulted in a $2.4 billion verdict against five companies in 2006, but was reversed on appeal.

“Lead poisoning is probably the best studied and best understood of any environmental health problem, and Judge Kleinberg recognized that in his decision,” Fitzpatrick said. “We know the primary causes, how it affects children, how they get exposed to lead, and most importantly, we know absolutely how to prevent children from getting lead poisoning in the future.”

Industry documents dating back nearly a century demonstrated the companies knew and chose to overlook that lead pigmentation – “the poison in the paint,” Fitzpatrick said – endangered health.

“There is no doubt that these companies knew from the very early part of the 20th century that lead poisoning was killing children and causing comas, seizures and brain swelling,” Fitzpatrick said.

“Truly, the only people who have not been part of the solution to this problem are the people who created it in the first place, and they are still in denial today. It’s time for these companies to step up to the table and become a part of the solution.”

email: msommer@buffnews.com