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"
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
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
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 email@example.com
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