The Illinois Supreme Court on Nov. 4 threw out a $10.1 billion verdict against Philip Morris USA in a long-running lawsuit accusing the Altria Group Inc. unit of misleading smokers about the health risks of “light” cigarettes.
By a 4-2 vote, the Court said lower-level state courts lacked authority under Illinois law to re-impose the verdict, which was first rendered in 2003 and reinstated in 2014, against Philip Morris, which makes Marlboro cigarettes.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anne Burke said the plaintiffs could instead ask the Illinois Supreme Court itself to reinstate the award, and overturn its own 2005 ruling that threw it out. She did not address the merits of such a request.
The decision voids one of the largest U.S. verdicts against a tobacco company related to smoking and tobacco smoke exposure, which the Surgeon General estimates cause 480,000 premature deaths annually in the country.
The class action case was brought in 2000 on behalf of 1.4 million Illinois smokers who said Philip Morris deceived them into believing that Marlboro Lights and Cambridge Lights cigarettes were safer than regular cigarettes.
Instead of suing over health problems, the plaintiffs sought to recoup sums spent on light cigarettes. It was the first case to go to trial over the marketing of cigarettes as “light.”
Justice Charles Freeman dissented from the decision. He said the lower courts had power to punish Philip Morris for its “appalling” conduct in long concealing the risks of light cigarettes, and fueling a “public health epidemic” caused by smoking and tobacco exposure.
Altria is based in Richmond, Va., and controls roughly half of the U.S. cigarette market.
George Zelcs, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said his clients are “disappointed” in the outcome and will review their options.
The plaintiffs had revived their lawsuit after the Federal Trade Commission in 2008 changed how cigarette makers could describe tar and nicotine levels in advertising and packaging.
A state court judge dismissed the case again in 2012. But in 2014, a state appeals court said that judge lacked authority to decide how the FTC action affected damages, and reinstated the original verdict.
The Nov. 4 decision overturned that reinstatement, which was put on hold during Philip Morris’ appeal.
The decision “effectively wipes away” seven years of litigation following the FTC action, “and requires the plaintiffs to start from scratch,” said Murray Garnick, an associate general counsel at Altria.
U.S. regulators have since June 2010 banned companies from using “light,” “low” and “mild” in tobacco labeling.
The case is Philip Morris Inc v. Price et al, Illinois Supreme Court, No. 117687.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bernard Orr)
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