State High Court to Hear Limits on Smokers' Rights
The California Supreme Court has agreed to rule on the rights of smokers to sue tobacco companies but is staying out of another big-money dispute over the Legislature's past spending of tobacco tax money.
The court voted unanimously Wednesday to review a crucial issue in the state law that allows smokers to sue over tobacco-related illnesses: whether or not it covers people who became ill because of smoking before Jan. 1, 1998, when the law took effect, but were diagnosed after that date.
California law barred suits by smokers against tobacco companies before 1998. The companies contend the law should not cover illnesses that occurred from smoking that took place before 1998.
That argument, if successful, would overturn two big San Francisco verdicts:
$26.5 million to Patricia Henley, who sued Philip Morris after developing lung cancer, and $21.7 million to Leslie Whiteley, who sued both Phillip Morris and R.J. Reynolds for the lung cancer that eventually killed her last July.
Both women were longtime smokers whose illnesses were diagnosed after January 1998. Most suits filed under the new law fall into the same category and will be affected by the ruling, said attorney Harry Wartnick, whose law firm represented Henley and Whiteley.
The case the court agreed to review comes from Tulare County, where Betty Jean Myers was diagnosed with lung cancer in April 1998, a year after she gave up her 41-year tobacco habit. After a federal judge dismissed her suit against major tobacco companies, the U.S. Court of Appeals asked the state Supreme Court to decide whether the suit was allowed by California law.
In a separate action Wednesday, the court unanimously denied review of a suit that accused the Legislature of illegally diverting $200 million from anti-tobacco education to health care for the poor during a five-year period in the early 1990s.
The money came from a 1988 initiative that increased cigarette taxes by 25 cents a pack and specified that 20 percent of the revenue would go to anti- smoking education in schools and public programs. It allowed legislative changes only if they fit the goals of the ballot measure.
The lawsuit, by a group of tobacco industry opponents calling themselves Just Say No to Tobacco Dough, said legislation signed by Govs. George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson cut education funding below 20 percent from 1989-90 through 1993-94.