Tobacco firms' immunity weakened Court allows suits in some state courts

June 25, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Giving tens of thousands of people a new chance to sue cigarette-makers because smokers got sick or died from their habit, the Supreme Court opened state courthouses yesterday to damage claims of millions of dollars against the tobacco industry.

The ruling, split 7-2 and 6-3 on its main points, stripped much of the legal immunity that cigarette manufacturers had claimed for years by insisting that they were legally safe as long as they put federally dictated health warnings on packs and in advertisements.

The two federal laws cited by the industry for its immunity claim, the high court said, did in fact eliminate some types of damage claims from being made under state law but left manufacturers exposed to a wide array of other claims in state courts.

While the decision does not guarantee that any lawsuits will be won, it means the industry will face years of court battles in scores of cases, probably in many states.

"The ruling is likely to lead to hundreds of thousands of lawsuits," said John Banzhaf, a law professor in Washington and founder of a militant anti-tobacco group, Action on Smoking and Health.

Many of the lawsuits will be keyed to claims that cigarette-makers covered up health risks that they knew smokers were taking, that they actually made promises that no harm to health would result from smoking, or that the industry's public statements deliberately misled smokers.

Major cigarette-makers reacted with relief to the ruling, focusing their public remarks on the fact that the court had taken away some of the rights to sue in state court. After the decision was announced, tobacco stock prices dived on Wall Street, but they rebounded later in the day when the industry began finding reasons for optimism.

Stock analysts appeared to regard the ruling as largely favorable, primarily because it gave clarity on the industry's legal status.

The ruling revives some claims that a Little Ferry, N.J., man, Thomas Cipollone, is making against three manufacturers because his mother, Rose, a heavy smoker for some 40 years, died from lung cancer at the age of 58. She started smoking at 16.

The decision, in the case of Cipollone vs. Liggett Group, settled an issue of legal immunity that the court had refused to consider five years ago. Since then, lower courts have taken differing views, leading the justices to step in to resolve the conflict.

When Congress passed warning-label laws in 1965 and 1969, it told the tobacco companies to use those labels, and it told states not to impose other legal duties for cigarette ads or package labels. The dispute before the court was whether those laws knocked out all legal claims against the industry under state law -- a view that the industry held and that smokers' lawyers rejected.

The court ruling yesterday was something of a compromise, written in three parts: one dealing with the scope of the 1965 law, one specifying what claims could be made under the 1969 law and one saying what claims could not be made under the later law.

Under the 1965 law, no state law claims were displaced by the federal warning labels, a majority declared.

The court's decision on the 1965 law permits one of the most serious complaints that smokers or their survivors want to make: that the industry had a duty to warn consumers explicitly in their advertising and other public statements about the specific dangers that cigarettes posed for all users.

The new ruling took a different approach to claims based on harm supposedly suffered from smoking after 1969, when the later, stricter federal warning-label law went into effect. In general, the court said, lawsuits are barred if they are based on any duty under state law to say, or not say, something in advertising or promotional statements.

But it appears to leave open the opportunity to pursue these kinds of claims against virtually all makers of cigarettes:

* That the companies did faulty testing and research on health risks from smoking, and did not reveal the results.

* That some advertising actually gave health assurances to smokers to get them to keep using cigarettes.

* That companies deliberately concealed health risks in public statements other than their ads or promotional campaigns -- in lobbying, for example.

* That advertising or promotional statements themselves were deliberately written to deceive smokers, or to lie outright to them.

* That tobacco companies joined in an illegal plot to cover up the health risks of smoking.

These kinds of legal claims were barred by the ruling, for injuries due to smoking after 1969:

* That companies' advertising and promotions should have included explicit health warnings, beyond what is in the federal labeling rules.

* That the companies use their ads and promotions to undercut or neutralize the effect on the public of the federal warning labels.

I= Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the court's main opinion.

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