Md. Court Rejects Smokers' Lawsuit
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) -- In a major victory for cigarette makers, the state's highest court ruled Tuesday that Maryland smokers seeking damages from the nation's tobacco companies cannot join together in a class-action lawsuit.
In a 4-3 decision, the state Court of Appeals nullified a January 1998 court order by a Baltimore Circuit Court judge that united plaintiffs united in a statewide lawsuit against the nation's top cigarette makers.
``The individual issues in this case would necessitate potentially hundreds of thousands of somewhat extensive trials,'' the opinion said. ``Such a trial plan hardly promotes judicial economy.''
The decision echoed those by several federal and state courts.
The ruling leaves the ongoing lawsuit in Florida as the only case in the U.S. where a statewide class-action suit on behalf of individuals seeking damages for smoking-related illnesses has been allowed.
William S. Ohlemeyer, Philip Morris general counsel, said, ``We are pleased that the Maryland Court of Appeals, like some two dozen other federal and state courts, has concluded that class actions are simply inappropriate for litigating smoking and health cases.''
The suit, covering Maryland residents with smoking-related diseases or who are addicted to nicotine, is separate from the $4.6 billion settlement the state is set to receive to cover smoking-related health care costs.
Both are being litigated by a legal team headed by Baltimore attorney Peter G. Angelos.
John C. M. Angelos, an attorney who works for Peter Angelos, said the firm would have no comment until attorneys read the ruling.
The order issued by the top court bypasses the usual judicial procedure of trial and appeal. One of the reasons given in the opinion for the unusual order is the inordinate size of the class -- potentially, tens of thousands of Maryland residents who would jam state courts.
``The waste of judicial and other resources, should the circuit court's class certification order be overturned on appeal, would be without precedent in the state,'' wrote Judge Irma S. Raker for the four-judge majority.
The class-action suit asserted that tobacco manufacturers researched, designed, produced and marketed cigarettes to state residents with the knowledge that the products are addictive and hazardous to human health. The suit also alleged that the tobacco companies fraudulently withheld information about the risks of smoking and denied a link between tobacco and disease.
Opening statements begin next week in the penalty phase of the Florida case, where the jury has already sided with an estimated 500,000 sick Florida smokers by deciding the industry conspired to produce a deadly product and should pay $12.7 million to three representative smokers.
Compensation for the rest of the class must now be determined.
An attorney for an estimated 500,000 sick smokers said he may seek more than $100 billion in damages from five major tobacco companies. Tobacco companies seeking to have damages capped at 10 percent of the industry's value, which the jury must determine.
The defendants are Philip Morris Inc., R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Lorillard Tobacco Co., Liggett and the industry's Council for Tobacco Research and Tobacco Institute.