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MINNEAPOLIS -- Two Minnesota cases are part of a new wave of tobacco litigation that threatens huge verdicts against the companies and danger to millions of dollars in settlement money from the industry that states have come to rely on.
Unlike personal injury cases in which sick smokers sue tobacco companies, these new cases, reports the Minneapolis Star Tribune, focus on deceptive trade practices: Did the tobacco companies mislead the public by advertising light cigarettes as less harmful than other smokes? Both cases contend that the cigarette companies -- Philip Morris in one case, R.J. Reynolds in the other -- breached Minnesota consumer protection laws when they marketed Marlboro Lights and Camel Lights as having lower tar and nicotine than other cigarettes.
In the first class action of this type to go to trial, an Illinois jury in March returned a $10.1 billion verdict against Philip Morris. The verdict is being appealed. In Minnesota, a hearing is scheduled for Nov. 3 to determine whether the case against Philip Morris, filed in 2001, can proceed as a class action.
Gale Pearson, an attorney with the firm Robinson, Caleagnie & Robinson in Minneapolis filed the case against R.J. Reynolds in April. The R.J. Reynolds case is in federal court; the Philip Morris one is in Hennepin County District Court. Philip Morris has asked the court to dismiss the suit, saying that it is barred by the statute of limitations and that there is no evidence of injury to the potential class members. Pearson said her clients believed that the light cigarettes were less harmful than others.
Philip Morris is the target of about 17 "lights" cases pending in 14 states, the bulk of the litigation. William Ohlemeyer, vice president and associate general counsel for Philip Morris and its parent company, Altria Group, predicted that the company will prevail, if not at the trial level, then on appeal. He said the Illinois verdict is an anomaly.
"Thirty-five courts have held 45 times that you cannot fairly or legally try tobacco cases as class actions," Ohlemeyer said.
An appeals court in Florida recently threw out a $145 billion award against Philip Morris and other tobacco companies, saying the case should never have been a class action.