In June 2010, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of deceptive terms such as “mild,” “low tar,” and “light” in the marketing and sale of cigarettes. The FDA reasoned tobacco companies had been promoting a decades-long lie that some cigarettes are less harmful to discourage smokers from quitting. This deception, the FDA explained, has had disastrous consequences for public health. The Surgeon General estimates that smoking and tobacco smoke exposure cause 480,000 premature deaths annually in the U.S.
In 1998, roughly 200,000 Marlboro Lights smokers sued Philip Morris USA for $600 million. Following 17 years of litigation, last month a Massachusetts judge agreed that the plaintiffs were unlawfully tricked into buying what they thought was a safer cigarette. Each plaintiff, however, was awarded only $25 plus interest.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that they “paid too much for the misrepresented cigarette.” But in a 41-page opinion, Superior Court Judge Edward P. Leibensperger wrote that the plaintiffs failed to prove they shared similar injuries beyond overpaying. The judge nonetheless ordered Philip Morris to pay $4.94 million. With interest, this award increases to $15.1 million, according to the attorneys involved.
While the judge agreed that Marlboro Lights were as harmful as Marlboro Reds, he wrote that he had no evidentiary basis for calculating the actual damages of each member of the class. After a five-week bench trial last year, the judge rejected the plaintiffs’ attempt to quantify the injury with a questionnaire asking smokers how much they would have paid for a fictional, safer cigarette.
Attorney Tom Urmy stated that the plaintiffs will appeal the portion of the decision in which Judge Leibensperger declined to order Philip Morris to relinquish $68 million in pretax profits on Marlboro Lights sales in Massachusetts. Urmy reasoned that Philip Morris should not be entitled to profit from its marketing fraud.
Counsel for Philip Morris stated that the judge properly recognized that the evidence didn’t support the “outrageous” reward that the plaintiffs sought. Since the case was filed in 1998, courts have narrowed the scope of class action litigation. In a similar case in Illinois, the state supreme court overturned a $10 billion award to Marlboro Lights buyers in 2003. The court reasoned that the lower courts lacked statutory authority to reimpose the verdict, which was first rendered in 2003 and reinstated in 2014, against Philip Morris. The decision voided one of the largest verdicts against a tobacco company in the United States, a blow to the 1.4 million Illinois smokers involved in the 2000 lawsuit.
The Massachusetts plaintiffs were similarly upset by Judge Leibensperger’s decision. According to a senior attorney at Northeastern University Law School’s Public Health Advocacy Institute, however, Leibensperger’s ruling that the cigarettes were in fact deceptively marketed will positively affect several similar lawsuits currently pending in Massachusetts. Although the reward was small, experts call the ruling a substantial victory in the ongoing legal battle against tobacco companies.
When consumers purchase a product, they do not expect to be hurt by a flaw in the item or the associated instructions. Unfortunately, many manufacturers put unreasonably dangerous products on the market, and people can suffer serious harm or even death as a result. As an injured consumer, you may face significant medical bills and time off work, and your primary recourse may be to pursue the manufacturer for compensation with the assistance of an product liability lawyer. At the Neumann Law Group, our product liability attorneys provide trustworthy legal representation to injured consumers all over the states of Massachusetts, Michigan, and California. Contact us toll-free at 800-525-NEUMANN or use our online form to set up a free consultation.