The Supreme Court refused yesterday to revive three closely watched lawsuits by union health funds against the tobacco industry to recover their costs of treating sick smokers.
Acting in one sphere of the nation's proliferating tobacco litigation, the justices let stand federal appeals court rulings that the health funds' claims were too far removed from any alleged wrongdoing by cigarette makers and thus the unions lacked legal "standing" to sue the companies.
The appeals were long shots, given the unanimity of lower court decisions against the health funds. The unions argued to the court that not only were those courts wrong on the law but that larger national concerns were at stake.
Yesterday's action came as the justices returned from a four-week recess and issued orders in hundreds of cases. In another high-profile dispute, the justices rejected an appeal by two HIV-positive men that raised the question of whether federal law prohibiting discrimination against disabled people applies to insurance policies.
Over dissents from Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the court refused to intervene in a South Carolina case in which abortion protesters were forbidden from getting close to a clinic, approaching its physicians and making any noise that would be heard inside.
In yesterday's tobacco case, union health funds in Pennsylvania, New York and Oregon brought federal racketeering and antitrust claims against the industry for medical benefits paid to workers and their families arising from smoking ailments.
In all three cases, federal appeals courts dismissed the lawsuits, saying the unions' asserted losses were not directly tied to the tobacco companies alleged wrongdoing. The health funds had argued that they were precisely the right parties to make the claims because they were the ones who actually paid for smokers' injuries and suffered the economic loss.
Lawyers for the companies, including Philip Morris Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., had told the justices that any claim arising from the medical expenses of fund participants "falls squarely within a category of injuries which for over 150 years has been held to be remote, indirect and derivative."
The union health funds had argued that the appeals court rulings effectively conflict with tobacco litigation brought by states. More than 40 state attorneys general reached a $246 billion settlement with the tobacco industry to recover the costs of smoking to state employee health and welfare funds.
In addition, the unions noted, the Justice Department last September sued cigarette companies to recover smoking-related health care costs.
Yesterday's action in Steamfitters Local Union No. 420 Welfare Fund v. Philip Morris, Inc. and related cases sets no national precedent and would not affect the pending federal lawsuit, which is based in part on a federal statute that permits the government to recover medical costs in some cases.
Separately, the justices refused to take a case testing whether a provision of the Americans With Disabilities Act covering stores, hotels and other public places applies to insurance policies. The court rejected an appeal by two men infected with the HIV virus who challenged Mutual of Omaha Insurance Co.'s limits on health care benefits for AIDS-related illnesses. The Infectious Diseases Society of America and numerous other public health groups had asked the court to take the case of Doe v. Mutual of Omaha. In the abortion protest case, Scalia and Thomas had wanted the court to hear the appeal of Michael Cloer, pastor at Siloam Baptist Church in Easley, S.C. and his group, Pastors for Life, challenging a court order restricting their demonstrations at a Greenville clinic that performs abortions.
The approach "would outlaw many activities long thought to be protected by the First Amendment--routine picketing by striking unions, for example, and the civil rights boycotts directed against businesses with segregated lunch counters in the 1960s," Scalia wrote in Cloer v. Gynecology Clinic.