TOBACCO: State, County And City Suits Are Merged
A judge ruled yesterday that "[m]ajor tobacco lawsuits in California, seeking billions of dollars in damages for smoking-related illnesses, should be coordinated in San Diego." In making his ruling, Superior Court Judge Ronald Prager said the litigation "cries out for coordination," the San Diego Union-Tribune reports (Gembrowski, 7/21). Prager agreed with the plaintiffs -- the state, three cities and 15 counties -- and the tobacco companies that the cases "involve numerous common allegations and legal issues [and] that consolidation made sense." The various suits seek reimbursement for costs incurred in treating smokers under state and local health programs, and allege that cigarette makers "suppressed the development of a safer cigarette." Under the judge's order, the consolidated suits would proceed to trial in two phases. First, a judge would determine whether tobacco companies engaged in deceptive business practices or suppressed information. If so, "he could order them to pay restitution to the state, repay profits that resulted from illegal practices and submit to an injunction limiting their marketing practices." A second phase would hand such information over to a jury, which would determine what monetary damages the state and other plaintiffs are owed for treating sick smokers.
San Diego Showdown
Prager said he would recommend to the state Judicial Council, which has final authority on such matters, that the case be tried in San Diego, as "[t]hree of the five cases already are being handled by San Diego Superior Court Judge Robert May" (Weinstein, Los Angeles Times, 7/21). The Union-Tribune reports that while May has experience with tobacco litigation, another judge could be chosen based on a variety of factors. One alternative is Robert O'Neill, a judge "who has handled the statewide coordination of 4,000 breast implant cases." Prager's decision to recommend San Diego as the "trial site was a bitter pill for San Francisco City Attorney Louise Renne" because her city "was the first in the nation to file against cigarette manufacturers and was the site of litigation that forced a tobacco company to pull its Joe Camel advertising" (7/21). So far, only the city of San Francisco has objected to a San Diego trial.
The Los Angeles Times notes that the "oldest of the five California cases" was filed in 1992 "by former San Diego school-teacher Julia Cordova on behalf of all California residents." In 1996, San Francisco became the first city to file suit against Big Tobacco, a suit that has been joined by "17 cities and counties and four health organizations -- the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Assn., the American Academy of Pediatrics and the California Medical Assn." In July 1996, an Orange County resident "sued the industry, alleging deceptive business practices." This suit was joined by Lt. Gov Gray Davis (D) in 1997. Separately, Attorney General Dan Lungren (R) filed suit against cigarette makers in June 1997 "attempting to recover part of the expenses California has incurred treating sick smokers under the Medi-Cal program." The Times notes that the trial of the consolidated suits could begin as early as February (7/21). The Union-Tribune quotes lawyers involved in the litigation as saying that a trial "will take about three months to finish" and that the "entire litigation ... could be in the courts for 12 to 18 months" (7/21).