Illinois Judge Reinstates $12B Bond in Philip Morris Case
NEW YORK -- An Illinois trial court judge reinstated an order calling for Philip Morris USA to post a $12 billion bond as it tries to appeal a judgment against the company in a "lights" cigarette case.
Madison County Circuit Court Judge Nicholas Byron stayed his ruling for 60 days.
The extra time is significant because it could give the Illinois Supreme Court a chance to decide whether it wants to rule on the bond issue before Philip Morris has to post it.
The Altria Group Inc.(NYSE:MO) (MO) unit asked the state Supreme Court to rule on the bond issue after a state appeals court remanded the case back to the circuit court to reinstate the original bond. Judge Byron had reduced the bond size in April after Philip Morris argued the large bonding requirement would bankrupt the company and deny it its right to an appeal of the case.
"It's put the total decision in the hands of the Illinois Supreme Court," said Martin Feldman, a tobacco-industry analyst at Merrill Lynch & Co., speaking of Judge Byron's ruling.
Analysts were expecting the jurist to reinstate the bond because the appellate court had left little room for him to maneuver.
Mr. Feldman noted Judge Byron's order didn't provide any detail on the form of the bond.
Philip Morris officials and attorneys representing the plaintiffs weren't immediately available to comment.
While Philip Morris would like the Illinois Supreme Court to weigh in on the bond issue, it is impossible to predict what the court will do. It previously rejected the company's attempt to bypass an appellate court review of the verdict in the case. This time around, the state Supreme Court could once again decide the case isn't ready to be considered by it.
Prudential Securities analyst Robert Campagnino said he thinks Philip Morris will re-file its petition with the state Supreme Court given Friday's decision.
"This will take time, and during that time, we expect valuations will be under pressure from the negative headlines that we believe will likely be generated as Philip Morris USA argues that bankruptcy is a real option if a $12.1 billion bond is indeed required to stay execution," he added.
Altria shares have already priced in some of the concerns about the bond issue, said Mr. Feldman, noting the stock price has fallen sharply since the Illinois appellate court overturned Judge Byron's reduced-bond order last month.
Bonds are typically required to protect the interests of the plaintiffs in order to guarantee the plaintiffs will receive their award should the defendant's appeal fail.
The plaintiffs in the case are a group of Illinois smokers who claim Philip Morris misled them by suggesting Marlboro Lights and Cambridge Lights are less harmful than full-flavored cigarette brands. The plaintiff class was awarded $ 10.1 billion in compensatory and punitive damages by Judge Byron in March.
Separately Friday, British American Tobacco PLC's (BTI) Brown & Williamson Corp. unit won a product-liability suit brought by Lois Eiser, the wife of a smoker of 25 years who died of lung cancer in 1999. She argued her husband was misled by the cigarette company to believe its Carlton cigarettes were safer than others.
Neither Mr. Campagnino nor Mr. Feldman own Altria shares. Merrill Lynch has an investment-banking relationship with the company, but Prudential doesn't.