A Tobacco Lawsuit Primer

Earlier this month, a Miami jury found for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the nation’s largest tobacco companies for misleading smokers about the dangers and addictiveness of cigarettes. The six-member jury will reconvene next month to determine punitive damages. Meanwhile, various other suits are being pursued against tobacco companies, including one filed by the federal government. Here’s a survey of the types of recent lawsuits against Big Tobacco:
Individual smokers. Smokers have been suing tobacco companies since the 1950s. Until recently, they have been almost entirely unsuccessful–mainly because tobacco companies argued effectively that smoking is a personal choice and that people have known of its harmful side effects for years. That argument is proving less effective these days as plaintiffs produce documents proving that cigarette makers have known all along their product is addictive. The next logical inference–if cigarettes are addictive, then people don’t choose to smoke them–has led to a couple of multimillion-dollar jury awards in recent months. In February, a California jury ordered Philip Morris to pay $51.5 million to a woman who said she developed inoperable lung cancer from smoking, and a month later, a state jury in Oregon awarded $81 million to the family of a man who smoked Marlboro cigarettes for 40 years before his death. Both awards were cut in half by the trial judges, and the cases are still on appeal.

Groups of many smokers. Class-action suits are brought by a few plaintiffs on behalf of many. In Miami, three plaintiffs sued Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard, the Liggett Group, and Brown & Williamson on behalf of as many as 500,000 addicted Floridians who suffer from certain smoking-related illnesses. Estimates suggest that various cigarette makers currently face as many as 125 similar suits across the country. Big Tobacco has been quite successful defending against these lawsuits; in 1995, for example, a federal appeals court threw out one class-action suit filed on behalf of more than 100 million smokers nationwide.

States. In 1994, Mississippi became the first state to sue tobacco firms to recover Medicare costs associated with treating smokers. Within months, every other state had either followed with a suit of its own or begun negotiations with tobacco companies. In 1998 the tobacco firms settled, agreeing to pay a total of $246 billion to the 50 states over the next 25 years.

The federal government. Last year, to the surprise of both Big Tobacco and Congress, President Clinton followed the lead of the states and sued the companies to recover the federal government’s smoking-related medical expenses. Clinton said the awards (if there are any) would be used to strengthen Medicare and other health-related programs. The case is still pending.

Insurance companies. Dozens of private benefit funds and health-insurance providers like Aetna and Blue Cross Blue Shield have filed lawsuits charging tobacco companies with engineering a “conspiracy” to addict their beneficiaries, costing them millions in medical expenses.

Philip Morris’ shareholders. Several shareholders brought a class action arguing that the company’s misleading practices led to a drop in the value of their shares. The company settled that claim in 1998 for more than $100 million.

Minority advocates. In September, a federal judge in Philadelphia dismissed a lawsuit charging the tobacco industry with violating civil right laws by targeted minority groups in marketing menthol cigarettes, which are more harmful than ordinary cigarettes. The plaintiffs–several black smokers and two black health-advocacy groups–said it was the first filed against the industry based on civil rights laws rather than personal injury or product liability laws.

Flight attendants. In recent months, more than 300 flight attendants have filed individual lawsuits in Florida to seek compensation for injuries caused by their exposure to second-hand smoke on airplanes. The suits are being brought under the terms of a $349 million settlement between flight attendants and Big Tobacco, which established a $300 million research foundation and cleared the way for the individual suits.

Canada. Last year the Canadian federal government sued R.J. Reynolds for allegedly smuggling cigarettes into Canada in an effort to avoid paying tobacco taxes. The suit, brought last year under civil racketeering and corrupt-practices legislation, says the scheme defrauded Canadian taxpayers of $1 billion. It is still pending.