U.S. Opposes Tobacco Lawsuit Dismissal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department urged a federal judge on Friday to reject a tobacco industry request to dismiss the lawsuit that seeks to recover billions of dollars spent by the federal government on smoking-related illnesses.
It said the motion by the tobacco companies was based on ''multiple legal errors'' and asked U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler to allow the case to proceed to trial.
The tobacco industry in December said the judge should throw out the lawsuit on the grounds the federal government had no legal right to recover smoking-related medical costs, but the Justice Department strongly disagreed.
``This lawsuit seeks to redress the massive harm that defendants' unlawful conduct has imposed on the federal fisc, to put an end to that unlawful conduct and to lessen its devastating future effects on the American people,'' it said.
The lawsuit, filed in September, accuses the tobacco industry of fraud and deceit since the 1950s and seeks to recover much of the $20 billion spent by the federal government every year on smoking-related illnesses.
Among those named in the suit were Philip Morris Inc.; R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.; Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.; British-American Tobacco P.L.C.; Lorillard Tobacco Co. Inc.; Liggett and Myers Inc.; The Council for Tobacco Research U.S.A. Inc. and the Tobacco Institute Inc.
The Justice Department said in the court papers that sufficient legal basis to bring the lawsuit existed under several different laws.
``The United States relies in this suit on statutes that Congress has passed to protect the integrity of federal health care programs and to ensure that wrongdoers do not succeed in shifting to the American people the costs of their unlawful conduct,'' it said.
The lawsuit seeks to recover money under two laws that apply to Medicare and health programs for military personnel. In addition, the suit invokes the federal racketeering law.
The Justice Department also rejected the argument by the tobacco companies that the case must fail because the federal government has never brought a similar suit.
``What makes this suit unique, however, is the conduct of these corporations, which for decades have deliberately and successfully addicted millions of citizens to a product that defendants have long known causes suffering and death,'' the Justice Department said.
``The scale of defendants' illegal conduct and the scope of harm that it has caused are truly unprecedented. Defendants cannot rely on the sheer massiveness of their wrongdoing to defeat this suit,'' the Justice Department said.
The Justice Department disagreed with the argument by the tobacco firms that the government should have brought thousands of separate lawsuits, each dealing exclusively with one person for whom the government has paid health care costs.
The Justice Department said it was correct in bringing a single lawsuit.
The judge in the case has scheduled oral arguments in June to hear arguments over the motion by the tobacco companies to dismiss the case, a department spokeswoman said.