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US: Altria Ruling Ignites Legal Moves

Effort to Reopen Multibillion-Dollar Case Promises to Gain Fresh Life

by BRENT KENDALLThe Wall Street Journal
December 21st, 2008

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court's ruling last week allowing smokers in Maine to sue Altria Group Inc.'s Philip Morris unit for allegedly deceptive advertising of "light" cigarettes already is prompting new legal activity, including an effort to revive a multibillion-dollar case against the tobacco company that had been thrown out.

The high court's decision came just in time for St. Louis trial lawyer Stephen Tillery, who filed a legal motion Thursday seeking to reopen a $10.1 billion judgment in Illinois he obtained against Philip Morris in 2003. The judgment was later tossed out by the Illinois Supreme Court, which said Mr. Tillery's plaintiffs couldn't sue the tobacco company for marketing cigarettes with "light" and "low tar" descriptions.

Mr. Tillery says the U.S. Supreme's Court's 5-4 decision "eviscerates" the legal basis for the Illinois court's ruling and could breathe new life into his case. He was nearing a final deadline for finding a basis to revive the suit.

Altria spokesman Jack Marshall said the Illinois plaintiffs have tried once before to have the case reopened and were rebuffed by the state Supreme Court. "We believe the plaintiffs' second attempt is also meritless and will be rejected by the Illinois courts," Mr. Marshall said.

The Supreme Court ruling, written by Justice John Paul Stevens, rejected Philip Morris's argument that the federal government's regulation of tobacco advertising should bar consumer product-liability lawsuits against the company in state courts. The tobacco giant has made similar arguments in other cases.

The ruling cleared the way for a lawsuit by a group of Maine smokers who allege that Philip Morris used the "light" term on Marlboro Lights and other cigarettes to communicate that those brands were less harmful than regular cigarette brands, even though it knew that smokers would receive the same levels of tar and nicotine from both.

The Maine case is similar to several state-law class-action lawsuits that deal with the advertising of light cigarettes. Many of those lawsuits were on hold pending the outcome of the Supreme Court case.

"An entire class of litigation has been revived thanks to [the] ruling," said Edward Sweda, an attorney with the Northeastern University's Tobacco Products Liability Project. "Those lawsuits were on the precipice of being eliminated."

Mr. Sweda said there are roughly 40 cases pending in 22 states. The Illinois case that Mr. Tillery is attempting to revive is the only one that has gone to trial, Mr. Sweda said.

Adding to those numbers, a new class-action lawsuit making similar allegations was filed in New York federal court Thursday by a Flushing, N.Y., man seeking economic damages on behalf of New York smokers of Marlboro Lights.

Mr. Marshall, the Altria spokesman, said the company would vigorously defend itself against the New York lawsuit and believes that it is meritless. He said a federal appeals court in New York rejected a similar class-action lawsuit earlier this year.

Write to Brent Kendall at

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