Big tobacco case reinstated in Minnesota

The Minnesota Court of Appeals today reinstated portions of a nearly 10-year-old, class action lawsuit against Philip Morris that claims the company fraudulently marketed Marlboro Lights as a safer cigarette.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2008 cleared the way for class action suits against cigarette companies that manufacture “light” cigarettes. The surprising 5-4 decision paved the way for the state actions. Since then, there have been numerous lawsuits filed around the country with mixed results. Class action suits have been certified in Massachusetts, Minnesota and Missouri. Judges in eight other states have rejected attempts to certify similar classes, according to the Concord (NH) Monitor . A judge in New Hampshire last month certified a similar lawsuit as a class action, in what could be the largest case in that state’s history.

In Minnesota, however, the Court of Appeals ruled the suit cannot proceed against Philip Morris’ owner, Altria. It said the two are different corporations. However the court reversed an October 2009 district court ruling that threw out the claims that Philip Morris “could not be sued for false advertising, consumer fraud, and deceptive trade practices regarding light cigarettes in violation of Minnesota consumer-protection statutes.”

The group filing the suit claims the tobacco company marketed the Marlboro Lights as safer than a typical cigarette. Memos uncovered during the Minnesota tobacco litigation in the ’90s revealed the company knew the claim to be false. The memos acknowledged that consumers who smoked “low tar” or “light” cigarettes, took longer “drags” on them, negating any benefit.

The lower court had also ruled that the settlement negotiated between then Attorney General “Skip” Humphrey’s office and Philip Morris barred the lawsuit. The Court of Appeals today reversed that ruling.

“The Tobacco Settlement does not provide any remedy for individual consumers who claimed to have been injured by Philip Morris’s violation of consumer-protection laws,” the court said in rejecting the tobacco company’s claims (See the entire opinion)

“Now that this important consumer-protection lawsuit can proceed, I look forward to it going to the trial in the near future,” Edward Sweda, the senior attorney for the Tobacco Products Litigation project said.