A $10.1 billion award to smokers of “light” cigarettes by an Illinois judge was based only on speculation and should be thrown out, a lawyer for Philip Morris USA told the Illinois Supreme Court on Wednesday.
“Opening the door to this kind of speculative damage claim, untethered to any market reality, would turn the rule of damages in this state on its head and leave no manufacturer safe,” said James Thompson, attorney for the largest U.S. cigarette maker.
Thompson was arguing before the court as it decides whether to uphold the March 2003 verdict and damages award in a class-action case where the unit of Altria Group Inc. was found to have deceived smokers into thinking “light” cigarettes were safer than regular cigarettes.
During the trial, the smokers’ lawyers argued for the large damage award by presenting findings from an Internet survey in which light cigarette smokers said regular cigarettes would have to be priced 92 percent less than light cigarettes to get them to switch.
Attorneys representing the smokers said Philip Morris had made promises to smokers of their Marlboro Lights and Cambridge Lights brands.
“What smokers didn’t know is that those promises were lies,” said Kevin Swedlow, a lawyer for the smokers.
The Illinois Supreme Court took the unusual step of bypassing the appellate court and hearing the case on appeal directly from the trial court.
Altria’s chairman and chief executive, Louis Camilleri, said last week that the case is one of the major legal issues Philip Morris needs to see resolved before Altria takes steps to break up into two or three independent companies. Analysts have said shareholders’ stakes in the company would be worth more if it were broken up.
The case represented a newer tactic by anti-tobacco lawyers, using state consumer protection laws to argue that “light” cigarette smokers were deceived, rather than trying to recoup medical damages for smokers.
As in other class-action cases, Philip Morris argued that the trial court should not have accepted the case as a class, but should have required each individual smoker to prove their case separately.