SAN FRANCISCO – An effort by California’s Supreme Court to clarify the state’s convoluted tobacco liability law only clouded the issue Monday, with both sick smokers and cigarette makers claiming victory.
The high court said smokers who got sick between 1988 and 1998 — when a state law protected tobacco companies from liability — are out of luck. But smokers who can prove they got sick anytime outside that 10-year period can sue.
“It’s not a clean win for either side,” said Martin Feldman, a tobacco analyst with Merrill Lynch.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys said two rulings issued by the court will allow more lawsuits to go forward and expose the industry to millions of dollars in damages. But tobacco companies and their investors cheered the rulings as limiting the industry’s liability.
Tobacco companies enjoyed such protection beginning in 1988, when the California Legislature enacted an “immunity statute” that lawmakers repealed in 1998.
The Supreme Court said smokers who got sick during that 10-year period could sue if chemical additives were the cause of their illness. The court, however, said high-nicotine cigarettes were protected.
Still, plaintiffs’ lawyers said they will have little problem proving that many of their clients’ tobacco-related illnesses occurred outside the 10-year period. They expect more suits to be filed based on Monday’s decisions.
The high court issued two rulings. In one, the plaintiff sued R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. after being diagnosed with lung cancer in 1996. The companies argued that the immunity statute protected them from his claim.
Three jury awards totaling more than $100 million had been put on hold pending the outcome of Monday’s decision. Tobacco lawyers said they expect those cases will now have to be retried.