World and Nation

Appeals Court Panel Throws Out Class Action Over ‘Light’ Cigarettes

In a victory for the tobacco industry, a federal appeals court threw out on Thursday an $800 billion class-action lawsuit on behalf of smokers who said they had been misled that light cigarettes were safer than regular ones.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers wanted to represent millions of people across the country who had smoked light cigarettes. But the court, saying it was impossible to generalize about why smokers chose light cigarettes, ruled that the group could not be treated as a class. Instead, smokers wanting to sue over the issue would have to do so individually.

There might be various reasons for a smoker to choose a light brand other than “the belief that lights were a healthier alternative,” the ruling said. “For example, if a lights smoker was unaware of that representation, preferred the taste of lights, or chose lights as an expression of personal style.”

Even though the ruling had been generally expected, and tobacco company stocks were little affected by the decision, analysts still viewed it as positive for the industry.

Several experts said the ruling, the latest in a string of industry victories in cases involving light cigarettes, relieved the tobacco industry of potentially billions of dollars in damages and could also deter other similar class-action lawsuits around the country.

“It may be persuasive to judges around the country who might well be watching it,” said Carl W. Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

The decision by a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a ruling in September 2006 by a federal district judge, Jack B. Weinstein in Brooklyn, that certified the suit as a class action.

Weinstein’s ruling represented the first time that a so-called lights case received class-action certification in federal court. At the time, the ruling was viewed as potentially opening the door to a major legal threat against the industry, exposing cigarette companies to large damages for their marketing of light cigarettes.

Yet, as a number of such lawsuits have been filed in state courts around the country, plaintiffs so far have had little success. One Illinois case, in which plaintiffs initially won a $10 billion judgment, was overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court.

More than a half-dozen such state cases are currently in legal limbo, awaiting a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a Maine case involving light cigarettes. The issue in those cases involves federal pre-emption, whether the fact that the Federal Trade Commission allowed marketing of cigarettes as light would bar legal action against tobacco companies on that count.

Clifford E. Douglas, the executive director of the antismoking University of Michigan Tobacco Research Network, said there was generally a high “win rate” in cases against the tobacco industry, but not when it came to class actions.

“Some courts have been very sympathetic, but many have had problems with the individualized nature of smoking and smoking-related injuries,” Douglas said.