By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - The Illinois Supreme Court on Wednesday threw out a $10.1 billion verdict against Philip Morris USA in a long-running lawsuit accusing the Altria Group Inc unit of misleading smokers about the health risks of "light" cigarettes.
By a 4-2 vote, the court said lower-level state courts lacked authority under Illinois law to reimpose the verdict first rendered in 2003 against Philip Morris, a unit of Altria Group Inc that makes Marlboro cigarettes.
Nonetheless, Justice Anne Burke wrote for the majority that the plaintiffs could still ask the Illinois Supreme Court itself to reinstate the award, which it had thrown out in 2005. The court did not address the merits of such a request.
Justice Charles Freeman dissented. He said the lower courts had power to punish Philip Morris for its "appalling" conduct in long concealing the risks of light cigarettes, and fueling a "public health epidemic" caused by smoking and tobacco exposure.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Philip Morris had no immediate comment.
Wednesday's decision for now voids one of the largest U.S. verdicts against a tobacco company related to smoking and tobacco smoke exposure, which the Surgeon General estimates cause 480,000 premature deaths annually in the country.
The class-action case was brought in 2000 on behalf of 1.4 million Illinois smokers. They said Philip Morris deceived them into believing that "light" or "low tar" cigarettes were safer than regular cigarettes.
Instead of suing over health problems, the plaintiffs sought to recoup sums spent on light cigarettes. It was the first case to go to trial over the marketing of cigarettes as "light."
In 2008, long after the original verdict was overturned, the Federal Trade Commission changed how cigarette makers could describe tar and nicotine levels in advertising and packaging.
That prompted the plaintiffs to revive their lawsuit, only to have a state court judge dismiss it again in December 2012.
But in May 2014, a state appeals court said the judge lacked authority to decide how the FTC action affected damages, and reinstated the original verdict.
Wednesday's decision overturned that reinstatement. That verdict was put on hold during Philip Morris' appeal.
Altria is based in Richmond, Virginia, and controls roughly half of the U.S. cigarette market.
U.S. regulators have since June 2010 banned companies from using "light," "low" and "mild" in tobacco labeling.
The case is Philip Morris Inc v. Price et al, Illinois Supreme Court, No. 117687.