Federal Judge Dismisses Minnesota HMO Suits Seeking Tobacco Damages
Lawsuits filed against tobacco companies by two Minnesota-based health plans were dismissed last Thursday by a federal district court judge who said that the HMOs failed to adequately prove they were damaged by the cigarette makers' actions, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports. In separate suits that were consolidated before trial, HealthPartners and Medica claimed that "years of industry deceit" about the health effects of smoking and nicotine had caused illness among smokers that increased the health plans' treatment costs. The health plans charged that seven tobacco companies and two trade associations had "violated Minnesota consumer protection and antitrust laws" through their marketing tactics. But U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that the health plans could not sufficiently show a "cause and effect link between their treatment costs and the tobacco industry's conduct." Magnuson added that damage models developed by the HMOs' sole expert witness, Dr. Jeffrey Harris, were "speculative, inconsistent and, therefore, unreliable." HealthPartners was "extremely surprised" by the decision, and General Counsel Barbara Tretheway said the health plan will likely appeal. Medica said only that it was reviewing Magnuson's ruling. Daniel Donahue, a senior vice president with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, one of the defendants, said the decision was "consistent" with rulings on other third-party suits throughout the nation. The dismissed suits "appear to be the last remaining tobacco cases in federal court in Minnesota," the Star Tribune reports. Magnuson had previously dismissed two similar suits brought against the industry by union trust funds and a corporation. In 1998, however, the state -- which legal experts said faced a different standard "as an entity [acting] in the public interest" than a business acting "in its own interest" -- brought a similar suit to trial and settled for $6.1 billion before the case went to a jury. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, which had joined that suit, received $469 million (Phelps, Minneapolis Star Tribune, 2/2).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.