Cigarette suit became a personal crusade for lawyer High court broadens smokers' rights to sue cigarette makers in cancer cases.

June 25, 1992|By New York Times News Service

SHORT HILLS, N.J. -- Back in the summer of 1983, Rose Cipollone, a smoker for 40 years, was dying of lung cancer and looking for a lawyer to sue three cigarette manufacturers. She invited Marc Z. Edell to her house in Little Ferry, N.J., and appealed to him to take her case. He tried to discourage her from tackling the cigarette industry.

"We sort of locked horns," Mr. Edell recalled yesterday in an interview in his law office here. "I tried to convince her how difficult it would be. I told her this litigation would be extremely burdensome and debilitating, both emotionally and from a time commitment."

Mrs. Cipollone persisted. Mr. Edell relented. And yesterday, nearly nine years after their meeting, the U.S. Supreme Court provided what Edell called a "great victory" in Mrs. Cipollone's case. In a 7-to-2 ruling, the court broadened smokers' right to sue cigarette makers in cancer cases.

Mrs. Cipollone, who died of lung cancer in 1984 at age 58 after decades of smoking a pack and a half a day of brands like Chesterfield and L&M, would have been delighted, Mr. Edell said.

"Rose's goal was to get the message out to make people have a greater appreciation of cigarette smoking and disease," he said. "The ramifications of this case, the health issue, are far reaching.

"The tobacco industry has a real long tail to worry about now," he added. As Mr. Edell warned his client, the ups and downs of the case have been emotionally draining. A $400,000 award by a federal jury in 1988 was thrown out in 1990 by an appeals court. Five days later, Mrs. Cipollone's husband, Antonio, who had taken up the fight after her death, died.

Indeed, Mr. Edell said the case became something of a personal crusade.

"I watched her die," he said. "Watching her being eaten away is a very strong motivation to keep going."

After Antonio Cipollone died, their son, Thomas, an engineer with a computer company in California, became the plaintiff in the lawsuit.

He declined to discuss the case yesterday. But in a statement issued by Mr. Edell, Mr. Cipollone said his mother wanted to make the public aware of her "pain and anguish" from smoking.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, had ruled that smokers could not sue cigarette companies for injuries that stemmed from their smoking after Jan. 1, 1966.

On that day, the first federal law requiring warning labels on cigarette packages and advertising took effect. The appeals court found that the law, as well as a tougher law that Congress passed in 1969, served to pre-empt suits for damages "relating to smoking and health" that challenged the way cigarettes were advertised or promoted.

In its decision yesterday, the court ruled that the first law, the federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, did not pre-empt damage suits at all, because it did nothing more than bar states from setting their own requirements for the contents of cigarette labels.

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