Last updated: 12/30/2015
Smokers, their families, and government entities have been filing lawsuits against tobacco companies for more than half a century. Over the years, tobacco litigation has seen a number of changes -- from the theories of liability used by plaintiffs to the legal defenses mounted by cigarette manufacturers. Read on to learn the history of tobacco litigation and to get an idea of the types of smoking-related lawsuits being brought today. (To learn about other products and chemicals that have been the subject of litigation, see Nolo's article Toxic Torts Overview.)
When the first reports emerged linking cigarettes to cancer emerged in the 1950s, plaintiffs began suing cigarette manufacturers. Plaintiffs in these early cases -- usually smokers with lung cancer -- typically employed several legal theories in their lawsuits:
Tobacco manufacturers responded in full force, fighting each lawsuit and refusing to settle out of court. They relied on several defense strategies, arguing that:
The tobacco companies prevailed in all of these early lawsuits. (To learn more about product liability, negligence, and fraud, see Nolo's articles Toxic Torts: Legal Theories of Liability and Defective Product Claims: Theories of Liability.)
In the 1980s, a new wave of lawsuits emerged. In the landmark case of that time, Cipollone v. Liggett, the plaintiff and her family alleged that cigarette manufacturers knew -- but did not warn consumers -- that smoking caused lung cancer and that cigarettes were addictive. Although Rose Cipollone's husband was awarded $400,000, an appellate court reversed the decision. Other plaintiffs also sued, claiming that tobacco companies knew cigarettes were addictive and caused cancer.
In defending these lawsuits, the tobacco companies argued that smokers had knowingly assumed the risks of cancer and other health problems when they began smoking. The companies also argued that various state laws were preempted by federal laws. That is, that federal laws governing tobacco advertising superseded state laws regarding the same thing, and plaintiff's couldn't sue under the state law. For the most part, the tobacco industry was successful in these lawsuits.
In the 1990s, plaintiffs began to have limited success in tobacco lawsuits, partly because some cigarette company documents were leaked showing the companies were aware of the addictive nature of tobacco. The first big win for plaintiffs in a tobacco lawsuit occurred in February 2000, when a California jury ordered Philip Morris to pay $51.5 million to a California smoker with inoperable lung cancer.
Around this time, more than 40 states sued the tobacco companies under state consumer protection and antitrust laws. These states argued that cigarettes contributed to health problems that triggered significant costs for public health systems. In these lawsuits, the tobacco companies could not use the defense that had proven so successful in lawsuits brought by individuals -- that the smoker was aware of the risks and decided to smoke anyway.
In November 1998, the attorneys general of 46 states and four of the largest tobacco companies agreed to settle the state cases. Terms of the settlement are referred to as the Master Settlement Agreement. Highlights include:
In recent years, several key court decisions have paved the way for a raft of individual lawsuits against tobacco companies and have opened the door for class action lawsuits that focus on light cigarettes.
In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court threw out a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of 700,000 smokers and their families against tobacco companies. In its ruling, the court found that tobacco companies knowingly sold dangerous products and kept smoking health risks concealed, but that the case could not proceed as a class action. Instead, the court ruled that each case must be proven individually.
This ruling paved the way for over 8,000 smokers and their families to bring individual lawsuits against the tobacco companies. By 2015, according to RJ Reynolds regulatory filings, the company faced jury verdicts totaling almost $300 million, although many of those cases are in various stages of appeal.
Another batch of tobacco lawsuits focuses on light cigarettes. Light cigarettes have special filters designed to dilute the smoke inhaled by smokers. Plaintiffs in these cases allege that tobacco companies advertise light cigarettes as being healthier than regular cigarettes, when in fact they are no safer than non-light cigarettes.
Tobacco companies respond that "light" refers to the taste of the cigarettes, not the amount of nicotine ingested, and that consumers should understand what "light" means. They have also raised federal preemption as a defense against state class action lawsuits, arguing that federal legislation regarding cigarette advertising supersedes state laws that prohibit deceptive advertising practices.
In December 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the tobacco companies' preemption arguments in a class action light cigarette lawsuit brought in Maine. In allowing the Maine case to proceed, the Supreme Court ruled that federal legislation does not preempt plaintiffs from suing under certain state unfair business practice laws. This will open the door for similar lawsuits against tobacco companies. The Supreme Court, however, didn't rule on any of the underlying claims -- plaintiffs will still have to prove that the cigarette companies violated Maine's consumer protection laws. (To learn more about the legal theories underlying light cigarette litigation, see Nolo's article Tobacco Litigation: Claims Involving Light Cigarettes.)
A Big Plaintiff's Verdict, Crushed Out On Appeal
In a 2014 wrongful death lawsuit against RJ Reynolds, a Florida jury awarded more than $23 billion in punitive damages to the widow of a former smoker, but in 2015 a Florida appeals court shrank that award way down to just under $17 million.
Any type of tobacco litigation involves complex legal theories, detailed and intricate scientific analyses, and often aggressive defendants. If you want to explore whether you or a loved one can bring a claim against a cigarette manufacturer, talk to a lawyer that specializes in this field and knows the status of tobacco litigation in your particular state.
For help on choosing a good personal injury attorney, read Nolo's article Finding a Personal Injury Lawyer. You can go to Nolo's Lawyer Directory for a list of personal injury attorneys in your geographical area (click on the "Types of Cases" and "Work History" tabs to learn about a particular lawyer's experience, if any, with tobacco litigation).