“To date, all (Australian) smoking claims have been decided on technicalities, or discontinued,” says Laurie’s solicitor, Andrew Higgins, of law firm Slater & Gordon. In 2001, the world’s first successful compensation claim against a tobacco company was made in the Victorian Supreme Court.
Melbourne woman Rolah McCabe, who was dying of lung cancer, was awarded $700,000 before the landmark ruling was overturned on appeal. Slater & Gordon also ran that case.
Higgins, who was at Laurie’s side during the gruelling bedside court hearing in April, describes the whole experience as surreal, like something out of a B-grade Hollywood movie. “Kingsford is the kind of place where you expect to see spinifex rolling down the main street. The Lauries are deeply conservative Bush supporters who also happen to represent the underclass of America.
They have nothing. So imagine how it looked when the tobacco company lawyers turned up in convoy demanding the kind of facilities you would expect to see at the AWB royal commission. The court was sitting inside a trailer home in the middle of nowhere, for God’s sake.”
Although he lived in the US for more than 30 years, Laurie had decided to reach back into his former life in Australia to seek justice for the terrible hand he believed he had been dealt. “If one person changes their way of life from this suit, then my dad didn’t die in vain,” Vanderhost says. “His death should be a testimony of standing up for what is right regardless of how difficult it is.”
Standing up to Big Tobacco is about as difficult as it can get inside a courtroom. On March 15, Laurie’s lawyers issued a statement of claim against British American Tobacco Australia Services (BATAS) in the NSW Dust Tribunal – the court that typically deals with asbestos-related cases. In it, Laurie accuses BATAS of deliberately encouraging people, including children and adolescents, to smoke despite knowing that tobacco was addictive and caused cancer. Further, the Laurie claim alleges that BATAS operated a policy of document destruction for the sole purpose of preventing damaging evidence being used in litigation against it.