The Illinois Supreme Court on Wednesday cleared the way for plaintiffs' attorneys to push that a $10.1 billion verdict against cigarette-maker Philip Morris be revived, sending the matter back to the trial court for more hearings.
The court upheld a state appellate court's February ruling that sends the case back to southwestern Illinois' Madison County. A judge there had sided with plaintiffs after a two-month 2003 trial in a class-action lawsuit over Philip Morris' marketing of "light" cigarettes. The state's high court later threw out that verdict.
With the latest ruling, the plaintiffs expect to argue that a favorable 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision may be applied to reinstate the Madison County case.
"The Supreme Court had an opportunity to review the appellate decision but found no basis to do so," Stephen Tillery, the attorney behind the lawsuit, said. "After a long journey through the courts, we believe this decision moves the judgment a step closer toward a final confirmation for the 1.1 million Illinois consumers who were represented in the lawsuit."
An attorney for Philip Morris' corporate parent downplayed Wednesday's development as the court merely deciding a procedural question about whether the plaintiffs met a statute of limitations and not the merits of the plaintiffs' bid to reopen the case.
"Mr. Tillery argues that there are newly discovered facts that warrant reopening the judgment. We do not believe there are," Murray Garnick, senior vice president and associate general couself for Altria Client Services, which represents Altria Group Inc. subsidiary Philip Morris USA. "All of the historical facts today were known at the time of the trial.
"The plaintiffs have a huge mountain to climb before they get anywhere, and the only thing decided to date is that they filed their petition on time."
In 2003, now-retired Madison County Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron found that Philip Morris misled customers about "light" and "low tar" cigarettes and broke state law by marketing them as safer, ending a trial that both sides at the time said was the nation's first over a lawsuit accusing a tobacco company of consumer fraud.
The state's Supreme Court overturned that verdict in 2005, saying the Federal Trade Commission allowed companies to characterize or label their cigarettes as "light" and "low tar," so Philip Morris could not be held liable under state law even if such terms could be found false or misleading.
The U.S. Supreme Court in late 2006 let that ruling stand, and Byron dismissed the case the next month. But in December 2008, the nation's high court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled in a lawsuit on behalf of three Maine residents that smokers may use state consumer protection laws to sue cigarette makers for the way they promote "light" and "low tar" brands.
Counting that decision as new evidence, Tillery again approached the Mount Vernon appellate court in hopes of reopening the Illinois lawsuit.
That suit claimed Philip Morris knew when it introduced such cigarettes in 1971 that they were no healthier than regular cigarettes and that the company hid that information and the fact that light cigarettes actually had a more toxic form of tar.