A 2005 $10.1 billion lawsuit against tobacco company Philip Morris USA is apparently headed back to court. A three-judge panel of the Fifth District Appellate Court in Mount Vernon, Illinois has unanimously ruled to remand the case to the trial court for further, unspecified proceedings.
The class action, which includes more than 1 million people as plaintiffs, centers on Philip Morris USA’s “light” and “low tar” cigarettes; the plaintiffs claim that the company misled consumers into believing that these cigarettes were safer than others. Indeed, the lawsuit claims that the tobacco company knew but did not inform the public that tar used in light cigarettes was actually more harmful than that used in regular cigarettes.
The trial judge in the original action found in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded damages of $10.1 billion, but the Illinois Supreme Court overturned the decision; it found that the the tobacco company had been marketing its products under Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations that permitted the labeling of “low tar” and “light” cigarettes as such — whether the terms were misleading was not reached by the court. The United States Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal. Accordingly, the trial court dismissed the case on December 18, 2006 pursuant to directions from the appellate court.
But then in December 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Maine plaintiffs seeking to use state consumer protection laws in a similar lawsuit against “light” and “low tar” cigarette manufacturers. The Supreme Court found that the FTC had never approved the use of such terms, and in fact, the FTC denied doing so.
With this decision in hand, Korein Tillery, the law firm behind the $10.1 billion Illinois lawsuit, filed an appeal on December 18, 2008 asking the Fifth District Appellate Court to review the case, alleging that the Illinois Supreme Court wrongly dismissed the case in light of the later U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding the Maine plaintiffs. The defendants had argued that this appeal was untimely, but the appellate court found that it was filed within the two-year statute of limitations and sent the case back to the trial court “for further proceedings.”
And that’s where we are now. Philip Morris attorneys, who can still appeal this most recent order to the Illinois Supreme Court, maintain that the ruling didn’t reopen the case, but that the decision was limited to whether the plaintiffs had filed a timely appeal. Whether the appellate panel even has the authority to reopen such a case will likely be hotly disputed in the coming proceedings.
On behalf of the plaintiffs, attorney Stephen Tillery has been quoted as saying his law firm is “eager to return to the courtroom to seek the justice our clients deserve.”