The federal appeals court in Philadelphia has handed the tobacco industry a major victory by ruling that the health warnings on cigarette packages protect the industry from certain types of liability claims brought by smokers.
The three-judge panel of the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court's decision and held that federal law preempts state law on damage suits challenging whether the warnings are adequate or whether a cigarette company acted properly in advertising and promoting its products.
The industry hailed the ruling, which was filed Monday and released yesterday, and predicted it would end the rash of suits brought by or on behalf of smokers. Tobacco stocks soared in reaction to the news.
The ruling was handed down in a case that is expected to go to trial this autumn. The suit was brought on behalf of Rose D. Cippolone, a heavy smoker who died of lung cancer in 1984, and her husband Antonio against Liggett Group Inc., Philip Morris Inc., and Loew's Corp., the successor to P. Lorillard Inc.
U.S. District Judge H. Lee Sarokin, who is presiding over the case, ruled earlier this year on a pretrial motion that the federal law mandating the warnings on cigarette packages in 1966 did not shield the tobacco companies from claims that they failed to warn consumers adequately about potential dangers of smoking.
The appellate court did not rule on the merits of other claims in the case, and remanded it to the district court for "further development of the claims and theories of the parties."
The reversal of Sarokin's ruling by the appeals court means one more victory for the tobacco industry. More than 200 lawsuits have been filed against cigarette companies in the past 30 years. The companies say they have never lost a case or settled one out of court. R. J. Reynolds Industries Inc. recently won a liability case in Santa Barbara, Calif., and had another case thrown out by a Tennessee judge. About 50 other cases are pending.
"We regard this decision as a complete vindication of the industry's position," said a spokeswoman for Philip Morris. "We believe that this decision should, as a practical matter, lead to an end to most, if not all, of the smoking and health litigation filed against the cigarette industry."
Jim Murren, a tobacco industry analyst with Cyrus J. Lawrence Inc. in New York, said he believes that the opinion will discourage the vast majority of potential plaintiffs from going to court. "It creates the perception that the tobacco companies are not as vulnerable as they originally seemed to be," Murren said.
Marc Z. Edell, an attorney for the Cippolones, said he will ask for a rehearing and, if it is denied, he will appeal to the Supreme Court.
Were the appeals court opinion upheld, it would "definitely hurt the new wave of [cigarette] lawsuits," said John F. Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University and executive director of Action on Smoking and Health. However, he added that elimination of the warning as a cause of action "would not be fatal because there are other legal theories under which plaintiffs are proceeding."