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Court ruling reignites tobacco suits

Times Staff Writer

The California Supreme Court made it possible Thursday for people who become ill from smoking to once again win large judgments from tobacco companies, unanimously rejecting a four-year-old federal court decision that had virtually halted all smoker lawsuits in the state.

“It reopens tobacco litigation in California,” said Northeastern University Law Professor Richard A. Daynard, who heads a group that promotes lawsuits against the industry. “The light just went from red to green.”

Since California began allowing individual lawsuits over smoking damage in 1998, plaintiffs had won some of the biggest tobacco awards in the country, including a $28-billion jury verdict in Los Angeles.

The awards came to a halt when a federal appeals court in 2002 set a strict deadline, saying smokers should have filed suit years earlier, when it became widely known that smoking was a health hazard and addictive.

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Taking advantage of the federal ruling, the tobacco industry had exercised its right to move cases into federal court, which hears disputes between litigants in different states. Lawyers said every single case was dismissed.

In a decision written by Justice Carlos R. Moreno, the high court said that although judges and juries can presume that plaintiffs should have known of the dangers and filed their lawsuits earlier, smokers can rebut that presumption by presenting evidence that tobacco companies misrepresented the risks.

“Although knowledge of smoking addiction has been widespread ... ,” Moreno wrote, “tobacco companies misrepresentation of the danger and addictiveness of smoking were also widespread.”

A lawyer for Philip Morris USA Inc. and Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp., the defendants in the case, did not return a telephone call seeking comment on the Supreme Court ruling. Another tobacco executive referred to a prepared statement.

“Awareness of the dangers of smoking will continue to be key issues should either of these cases proceed to trial, and plaintiffs must prove liability on the part of the defendants including, among other things, that smoking caused their illness and that the company’s conduct prevented them from making an informed choice to smoke,” said William S. Ohlemeyer, Philip Morris USA vice president and associate general counsel, in the statement.

In one of two cases before the court, Leslie Grisham sought economic damages for the costs of cigarettes she bought when she became addicted.

She also sought damages for physical injury. She said smoking gave her emphysema, peritonitis and gingivitis, which led to the loss of her teeth and disfigurement.

The court also said Grisham can sue for her physical injuries because the clock did not start ticking for the legal deadline until she discovered her ailments.

“The addictiveness of a product is distinct from its capacity to cause serious physical injury,” Moreno wrote.

The two cases will go now back to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Although smoking cases may still be heard in federal court, judges there will have to base their decisions on the California court’s interpretation of state law, lawyers in the case said.

Daniel U. Smith, who argued before the California Supreme Court for Grisham, said he was “elated” by the ruling. If the court had ruled that the legal deadline for suing began with knowledge of addiction, no one in California would ever recover damages for serious smoking-caused disease, he said.

“Cancers take 10 to 20 years to develop,” he said. “Now it is a new day, and we will see if more smokers file now that they are allowed to,” he said.

Smith said the federal ruling spawned similar decisions in other federal circuits around the country. Now that a moderately conservative California high court has rejected the 2002 decision, “other federal courts will be invited to reconsider their positions,” he said.

But Brentwood lawyer Michael Piuze, who won billion-dollar verdicts against the tobacco industry, said the 2002 decision caused many trial lawyers to “wash their hands” of tobacco litigation “because it has been impossible.”

“Every state court case got kidnapped to federal court and then got executed under the authority” of the 2002 ruling, Piuze said.

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maura.dolan@latimes.com


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