$10 billion ‘light cigarette’ tobacco suit ends at U.S. Supreme Court

Justice Lloyd Karmeier
Justice Lloyd Karmeier

The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected allegations that the Illinois Supreme Court was biased when it rejected a $10 billion trial court judgment against tobacco giant Philip Morris that originated in Madison County.

Price et al v. Philip Morris was initially argued in Madison County in 2003, alleging that Philip Morris committed fraud by advertising “light” cigarettes as healthier than regular cigarettes.

The class action suit, filed on behalf of about 1 million Illinois smokers, alleged that Philip Morris lied when it advertised light cigarettes as containing less tar and nicotine than regular cigarettes. They argued that the cigarettes were designed to fool testing machines, and that light cigarettes actually posed a greater health threat than regular cigarettes.

Plantiffs’ attorneys at the St. Louis-based Korein Tillery law firm acquired internal scientific reports that they said showed Philip Morris’ internal testing found tar from Marlboro Lights was more likely to cause cancer than that of Marlboro Reds.

Now-retired Madison County Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron found in favor of the plaintiffs in a bench trial with a $10.1 billion fine. Philip Morris appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, which ruled in its favor in 2005 and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case.

But a later suit — Altria Group v. Good — has since established that the Federal Trade Commission had not authorized the use of “light” as a description for the cigarettes. The Price plaintiffs appealed on that basis to the Illinois Supreme Court.

In May 2014, the plaintiffs requested that Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier should recuse himself. He refused, and cast the deciding vote in a 4-2 decision in favor of the tobacco company.

The plaintiffs had argued that Karmeier was biased because he allegedly received election donations from Philip Morris and its affiliates. They also cited public statements Karmeier made before his narrow reelection in 2014 that they said indicated he was biased against the smokers in the Philip Morris suit. After the decision, they appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on the basis that Karmeier had a conflict of interest and should have recused himself.

But now, the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected that argument by declining the plaintiffs’ petition for review on Monday without comment. That effectively ends nearly 17 years of litigation, according to Korein Tillery.

“The Price case was the first class action ever tried against the tobacco industry based on the fraud of Marlboro Light cigarettes — cigarettes intentionally designed to provide health reassurance to addicted smokers and to give them the emotional ‘crutch’ they needed to keep smoking,” read a statement from Korein Tillery. “In effect, Lights were designed to maintain addiction and market share while allowing addicted smokers an alternative to quitting.”

The plaintiffs’ representatives said in the 13 years since the original trial, the U.S. Surgeon General and public health community has reached conclusions “virtually identical” to the outcome of the trial, concluding that light cigarettes are more dangerous than regular cigarettes. The Federal Trade Commission no longer allows light cigarettes to be advertised as healthier alternatives.

“Losing any case after 17 years of intense litigation is obviously disappointing,” the statement read. “But all of us who represented the plaintiffs in Price feel that the case was socially significant and brought into public view facts that needed to be revealed. If just one smoker quit as a result of the Price case, our efforts were clearly justified.”

On one thing both sides agree: the Supreme Court’s decision ends the case once and for all.

“Almost 10 years ago this case was dismissed against Philip Morris USA, and after countless hearings, motions and legal maneuvers by the plaintiffs to reinstate judgment, the outcome remains the same,” said Murray Garnick, Altria Client Services senior vice president and associate general counsel, speaking on behalf of Philip Morris.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald