Legal Issue

Whether a consolidated class action lawsuit comprised of injured smokers would violate the due process rights of persons excluded from the class, since it would deny them the right to seek future punitive damages.

Overview

The plaintiff smokers in this class action originally sued the tobacco companies claiming fraudulent denial and concealment of the health risks of smoking, and seeking both compensatory and punitive damages (Simon I). New York Federal District Court Judge Weinstein ordered the suit consolidated into a single massive case of all potential punitive damage claims comprised of the millions of smokers who have been diagnosed with smoking-related diseases (Simon II). Smokers already pursuing legal cases around the country would have seen their claims for punitive damages transferred to the single massive case before Judge Weinstein, who would then have decided all issues related to punitive damages once and for all. The remaining portions of their cases, including their claims for medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering and other compensation, would have remained in the courts of their home jurisdictions.

On May 30, 2003, the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium, the Tobacco Control Resource Center, and others filed an amicus brief to the court supporting neither party, and opposing the lower court’s decision establishing a single nationwide class action to resolve virtually all potential legal claims for punitive damages against tobacco manufacturers. We argued that although the decision does not violate the due process rights of tobacco companies, the ruling does violate the due process rights of persons improperly excluded from the class since it would deny them the right to seek punitive damages in the future.  This includes those who will develop tobacco related injuries after the class period and those whose personal injury claims are based on exposure to secondhand smoke. We also noted that often the punitive damage element of these claims provides the primary financial incentive for attorneys to accept these difficult cases.  Seven national public health organizations joined our brief.  The brief was joined by seven public health organizations and Dr. C. Everett Koop, the former Surgeon General of the United States

Outcome

On May 6, 2005, the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated the District Court’s order and returned the case to the lower court, holding that the proposed class failed to satisfy the threshold requirements for class action certification. The court’s decision helped ensure the continued viability of litigation by injured smokers.

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