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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Cigarette maker Philip Morris USA has asked the Illinois Supreme Court to bypass a lower court and hear its appeal of a $10.1 billion verdict in a class-action lawsuit, arguing the suit never should have been allowed to proceed in the first place.
A review by the state's top court would bring a quicker resolution and address questions about whether the case should have been certified as a class action, according to an Associated Press report. Illinois Judge Nicholas Byron in March ordered the cigarette maker to pay $10.1 billion for tricking Illinois smokers into believing light cigarettes are less harmful than regular brands.
Philip Morris' appeal strategy -- challenging the class certification -- goes to the heart of Madison County's reputation as being overly friendly to class-action lawsuits. The jurisdiction in St. Louis' Illinois suburbs developed a plaintiff-friendly reputation after some of its locally elected judges the past few years certified classes that judges in other jurisdictions would have rejected, the report claims.
Certifying a class means allowing a class-action lawsuit to proceed after deciding that all plaintiffs suffered from the same wrongdoing in the same way. In the Philip Morris case, lead plaintiffs' lawyer Stephen Tillery claimed 1.1 million Illinois smokers were all tricked into believing light cigarettes were better for their health than regular brands, regardless of whether they suffered from medical problems, and despite the fact that they all presumably spent different amounts of money on cigarettes.
Philip Morris attorneys say they'll try to convince the Illinois Supreme Court that those smokers never should have been lumped together in the lawsuit, because studies have shown smokers inhale various amounts of tar and nicotine. In addition, each plaintiff must have spent various amounts of money on cigarettes, depending on their habits.
"The vast majority of federal and state courts in the United States have ruled that the law doesn't permit tobacco cases to be tried as class actions," said William Ohlemeyer, a vice president and associate general counsel at Philip Morris.
If the petition is approved, Philip Morris will be able to bypass the 5th District Appellate Court in Mount Vernon and appeal the verdict directly to the Supreme Court.
Philip Morris also joined a second petition this week asking the Illinois Supreme Court to limit appeal bonds at $100 million or 10 percent of a company's net worth, whichever is lower. Philip Morris joined fellow cigarette makers RJ Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard, as well as several business groups in asking the court to cap the money any entity must pay before appealing a verdict in a class-action lawsuit.
Philip Morris has been trying to get out from under a $12 billion appeal bond Byron ordered, then reduced to an initial $6 billion, plus hundreds of millions of dollars each year as the appeal progresses. Illinois law requires those who lose big lawsuits to post a bond before appealing the judgment to ensure those who were awarded the money ultimately receive it.