California Supreme Court Allows Smokers To Sue Tobacco Industry For Fraud, Negligence
The California Supreme Court yesterday ruled that smokers in the state can file suit against the tobacco industry for fraud and negligence but cannot present most evidence of the industry's conduct from 1988, when the state enacted a law to protect tobacco companies from lawsuits, to 1998, when the law was repealed, the Los Angeles Times reports. The court ruled in two cases filed against Philip Morris Cos. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. by California smokers who died of lung cancer (Dolan/Levin, Los Angeles Times, 8/6). In the cases, the court interpreted a California law enacted in 1988 that prohibited lawsuits against tobacco companies "on the grounds that the dangers of smoking were common knowledge." The plaintiffs in the cases argued that the repeal "was retroactive and stripped cigarette manufacturers of the immunity" that they received between 1988 and 1998. However, the tobacco industry argued that the law extended their protection from the 10-year immunity period to the years before 1988 (Fairclough, Wall Street Journal, 8/6). In a 6-1 decision, the court ruled that the law only protects tobacco companies from lawsuits based on the industry's conduct between 1988 and 1998. Justice Joyce Kennard wrote, "With respect to conduct falling outside the 10-year immunity period, the tobacco companies are not shielded from product liability lawsuits." In a second 5-2 decision, the court ruled that smokers can use evidence from the 10-year immunity period in cases where tobacco companies may have "used additives to make smoking more addictive." Kennard wrote that California law "does not shield a tobacco company from liability for injuries or deaths caused by something not inherent in the product itself" (Los Angeles Times, 8/6).
Plaintiffs' attorneys said that the decisions yesterday marked a win for smokers and "will not threaten" 75 lawsuits filed against tobacco companies in California, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Madelyn Chaber, who represents one of the plaintiffs, called the decisions a "victory" and said that they would eliminate only a "few pieces of evidence that would have been nice to have" (Chiang, San Francisco Chronicle, 8/6). Daniel Smith, who represents one of the plaintiffs, added, "The mountain of evidence in these cases is from the '50s and the '60s" (Los Angeles Times, 8/6). Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said that the decisions "leave the tobacco industry open to the vast majority and the most severe of the claims they are facing" (Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids release, 8/5). However, the decisions "could make it easier for cigarette makers to defend themselves against future lawsuits," the Wall Street Journal reports. Philip Morris Associate General Counsel William Ohlemeyer said, "I think the rulings advance our position considerably. People can still file lawsuits, but this makes it clear that the evidence they can use is narrower than it was yesterday" (Wall Street Journal, 8/6). Tobacco industry attorneys said that as a result of the decisions, they plan to appeal three multimillion-dollar California verdicts in favor of smokers who presented evidence from the 10-year immunity period in their lawsuits (San Francisco Chronicle, 8/6).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.