A judge Tuesday denied punitive damage claims against three U.S. companies in a landmark lead paint case that had been expected to trigger a flurry of similar claims against the industry.

The three former lead paint makers — Sherwin-Williams Co., NL Industries Inc. and Millennium Holdings LLC — were found liable by a jury last week for creating a "public nuisance" and must clean up contaminated paint in the state, which could cost as much as $3 billion.

On top of clean-up costs, state prosecutors had argued that Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein should allow a jury to set punitive damages.

"This court believes it has no alternative but to deny the punitive damage claims of the state as a matter of law," Silverstein told the court before dismissing the jury.

The case has been watched closely in other states, counties and cities where lead-poisoning lawsuits are pending, and has drawn similarities with past multi-billion-dollar judgments against tobacco makers.

The jury sided last week with prosecutors who accused paint manufacturers of covering up the risk of lead paint, especially to children, in their lawsuit filed in 1999, the first to hold paint makers responsible.

Lead paint was banned by the U.S. government in 1978 after studies showed it caused health problems in children, including learning disabilities and permanent brain damage.

But it remains widespread, especially in older homes in the northeastern United States. Rhode Island children routinely test above the national average for blood-lead levels.

The paint companies deny they are directly responsible, saying landlords, not paint makers, should be held accountable for conditions that expose children to lead.