U.S. Supreme Court hears Tobacco Case

On October 10, 2008, the Supreme Court opened its term with a case to determine whether people can sue tobacco companies under state law for their claims that certain cigarettes were “light” when some lawsuits would be impermissible under federal law.    

From the NY Times:

“The case was brought by three plaintiffs from Maine as a proposed class action. They sued Altria and its Philip Morris USA unit for fraud under Maine’s Unfair Trade Practices Act, saying they had been injured by their reliance on what they called the companies’ false statements.

“The defendants countered by invoking a federal law, the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, which says “no requirement or prohibition based on smoking and health shall be imposed under state law with respect to the advertising or promotion” of cigarettes that follow federal labeling requirements.”

Read more about the merits of the case, and the litigators arguing in front of the Supreme Court, after the jump.

From the NY Times:

Theodore B. Olson, representing the tobacco companies, said the plaintiffs’ fundamental claim — that they had been misled into buying cigarettes they believed were safer than regular ones — was inescapably about smoking and health.

David C. Frederick, representing the plaintiffs, said the federal law did not pre-empt fraud suits brought under general state consumer protection laws. Mr. Frederick drew on a fractured 1992 Supreme Court decision, Cipollone v. Liggett Group, in which a four-justice plurality said Congress had not meant to pre-empt all fraud suits concerning cigarettes.

“Mr. Frederick said there was a difference between state laws “specially targeted at the cigarette industry” and “a generally applicable rule against deception,” one that would not entangle a jury into “any special inquiry about smoking and health.” Only the first sort of law is pre-empted, he said.”

More interestingly, the U.S. government has not taken a position on the major issue at hand:

“Asked repeatedly where the government stood on the effect of the federal law itself, Douglas Hallward-Driemeier, an assistant to the solicitor general, would not bite. “The United States has not taken a position on the bottom line” of the main issue in the case, Mr. Hallward-Driemeier said.”

Several justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, appear unpersuaded by the plaintiff’s distinction and therefore may be unwilling to let plaintiffs bring state law challenges.

General information about past tobacco litigation is available here.

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