NEW YORK (AFP) -A US federal judge gave a green light to a class-action lawsuit alleging major tobacco companies deceived consumers into believing “light” cigarettes were safer than other cigarettes.
Judge Jack Weinstein of US District Court in Brooklyn, New York, rejected a motion to dismiss the case, allowing a trial to go forward against Altria unit Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. and others.
The ruling opens the door to a potentially massive judgment against cigarette makers, which up to now have managed to avoid major damage awards or win appeals in most of the the suits alleging they should pay for improperly hiding the dangers of tobacco.
The plaintiffs are seeking damages from what they claim was a conspiracy dating back decades to make it appear that “light” or “low tar” cigarettes were safer.
“There is enough merit to both plaintiffs’ and defendants’ contentions to permit the litigation to go forward,” the judge wrote.
“If, as contended by plaintiffs, a huge fraud was perpetrated on tens of millions of people causing them billions of dollars in loss … recovery dependent on proof should be allowed.”
The judge said there was “considerable merit” to the allegation that most smokers would not have purchased light cigarettes “if they knew they provided no health advantage over regular cigarettes.”
“Essentially, the issue before the court is not whether a fraud case be proven, but whether damages can be proven for the period since each smoker started smoking, failed to stop, switched to, or started with ‘lights’ rather than the standard cigarettes in vogue up to the introduction of ‘lights’ on a large scale,” he wrote.
Michael Hausfeld, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said as many as 50 million Americans could join the lawsuit seeking between 100 billion and 200 billion dollars in damages.
The sum “corresponds to the amount of revenues perceived from the light cigarettes between 1971 and to date,” he said.
Tobacco firms said they would appeal, arguing that the judge erred in allowing a class action.
“We’ll ask the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals to review the decision and to stay all proceedings pending review,” said David Howard of Reynolds American, parent of RJ Reynolds.
Philip Morris USA general counsel William Ohlemeyer said his company “believes that the appellate court will find that today’s certification decision runs counter to the overwhelming weight of federal and state case law regarding class actions in smokers’ litigation and must be reversed.”
Ohlemeyer added, “This case involves smokers who are not seeking to recover for personal injuries, who continue to smoke ‘light’ cigarettes and who paid no more for Marlboro Lights cigarettes than they would have paid for regular Marlboros.”
Richard Jahnke, analyst at Briefing.com said the ruling was “disappointing” for major tobacco companies and opens the door to damages of 120 billion to 200 billion dollars.
The lawsuit, “was seen as one of the last large legal hurdles facing the industry,” he said. “This presents a considerable overhang for the industry, and could have specific implications for Altria Group’s restructuring plans.”
Cigarette makers recently won a major victory in a US government lawsuit when a federal judge in the US capital ruled that even though the companies may have misled smokers, the firms cannot be held liable for punitive damages.
In the other major case pending against the industry, Florida’s Supreme Court in July tossed out a landmark 145-billion-dollar punitive damage award against cigarette makers to hundreds of thousands of smokers, calling it “excessive as a matter of law.”
The lawsuit filed in May 2004 alleged a decades-long conspiracy to try to show light cigarettes were safer.
“The industry’s goal was not to develop less harmful cigarettes, but to develop cigarettes that would be perceived as less harmful,” said the suit.