California Supreme Court Considers Whether Tobacco Industry Protected from Certain Lawsuits
The California Supreme Court yesterday heard arguments in two cases that will determine the "ground rules" for future litigation against tobacco companies, the Los Angeles Times reports. At issue is a state law passed in 1988 that had protected the tobacco industry from litigation until the law's repeal in 1998. The court will decide whether the law continues to provide the industry protection from some lawsuits, the Times reports (Dolan, Los Angeles Times, 5/8). The two cases involve lawsuits filed on behalf of smokers that were dismissed by lower courts. The courts ruled that athough the suits were filed after the law was repealed, they were based on illnesses and industry conduct that occurred before 1998, and therefore were covered by the 1988 law. The tobacco industry argued yesterday that the industry "should still be insulated" from lawsuits involving any conduct or illnesses that occurred before 1998 because in repealing the law, the Legislature did not say whether the repeal is retroactive (Mintz, San Jose Mercury News, 5/8). Ronald Olson, who is representing Philip Morris Cos., said the court could not say the repeal is retroactive to 1988 because it did not have a "clear, unmistakable and unequivocal declaration of retroactivity." Lawyers representing smokers, however, said the 1988 law never gave the industry "complete immunity" from lawsuits, adding that it only protected the industry if their products were "pure and unadulterated, and freely purchased by consumers despite their hazards" (Los Angeles Times, 5/8).
The Sacramento Bee reports that although none of the justices appeared to support ruling that the repeal was "fully retroactive," some said the ban on lawsuits may apply only between 1988 and 1998, meaning the industry could be sued by people who began smoking before 1988 (Cooper, Sacramento Bee, 5/8). Should the court rule in favor of the industry, two "blockbuster" California decisions -- a $26.5 million verdict against Philip Morris in 1999 and a $21.7 million award against Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds -- would be overturned (Chiang, San Francisco Chronicle, 5/8). The court's ruling is due in 90 days (Sacramento Bee, 5/8).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.