Light cigarette smokers lose class-action status
Tobacco companies Thursday won a legal round against smokers who claimed they were misled about the health effects of light cigarettes.
The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan overturned class-action status for a lawsuit seeking at least $200 billion on behalf of tens of millions of smokers.
The damages theoretically could have ballooned to as much as $800 billion. If that were the case, it would have become the largest class action in American history, said Theodore M. Grossman, a lawyer for the tobacco companies.
The defendants, including Philip Morris USA, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., prefer trying each case on its own, saying circumstances for each smoker vary widely.
Grossman said the ruling had “tremendous significance,” in part because there were similar class-action lawsuits pending in various states which made the same claims.
The lawsuit said tobacco companies promoted light cigarettes as a lower-risk alternative to regular cigarettes, even though their internal documents allegedly showed they knew the risks were about the same. The class may consist of as many as 60 million people, lawyers say.
Michael Hausfeld, who argued the case for smokers, said the ruling was upsetting but no decision had been made about whether to appeal.
“Not only was a lot of money spent on a product that wasn’t what it was represented to be, but a lot of lives were lost and diseases contracted unnecessarily,” Hausfeld said.
The case against the cigarette makers was first filed in 2004. The three-judge appellate panel Thursday knocked down a 2006 ruling by U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein in Brooklyn that granted the class-action status.
The appeals court did say that some smokers may have relied on misrepresentations by tobacco companies to varying degrees.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that they could prove on a class-wide basis that smokers would not have favored light cigarettes had the truth been known.
The appeals court said each individual would have to prove whether he or she relied completely, in part, or not at all on marketing misrepresentations in purchasing light cigarettes.