TOBACCO: L.A. Woman Brings First Private Suit Against Industry Since Law’s Repeal
A resident of Los Angeles is suing the Philip Morris tobacco company in state court in San Francisco -- the first suit by a private citizen to come to trial after the state Legislature repealed a ban on such actions in 1997. While Big Tobacco is "assumed to have disposed of its liability problems a couple of months ago when it reached a $206 billion legal settlement with the states," it is still vulnerable to lawsuits from private citizens, as well as class- action suits. Such claims were prohibited in California, however, "under a 1987 tort reform law that banned such suits on grounds that the risks of smoking were universally known." But after former Attorney General Dan Lungren (R) joined with other states in what eventually became the $206 billion deal, "the move renewed complaints that lawmakers had blocked the courthouse door for ordinary citizens" and the state Legislature repealed the ban in September 1997. The plaintiff in the current case, Patricia Henley, is charging Philip Morris with negligence, strict liability and fraud, arguing that there were no warnings on cigarettes when she took up the habit 35 years ago and that manufacturers still do not warn smokers that their products are addictive. Defense attorney William Ohlemeyer said Philip Morris had "no duty to warn (Henley) of risks that were already matters of common knowledge" and that her cancer "originated in the thymus -- a gland in the chest -- rather than in the lung, creating doubt that her illness was smoking-related." Henley's attorney, Madelyn Chaber, said many other potential plaintiffs "are waiting to see whether these cases can be won, and they choose to let others take the fall or the credit. I guarantee if I win, there'll be other cases filed" (Levin, Los Angeles Times, 1/7).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.