The Supreme Court of California [official website] on Thursday ruled [opinion, PDF] unanimously to allow claims against tobacco companies for smoking-related ailments that arise after the statute of limitations for an earlier condition has elapsed. Though state law requires that parties file suit within two years of discovering an injury, the decision will allow smokers to proceed with claims based on medical conditions originating after a previous diagnosis so long as the injuries are "separate and distinct." Focusing on medical similarities over causation, Justice Joyce Kennard stated:
We hold that two physical injuries - both caused by the same tobacco use over the same period of time - can, in some circumstances, be considered "qualitatively different" for purposes of determining when the applicable statute of limitations period begins to run. Specifically, when a later-discovered disease is separate and distinct from an earlier-discovered disease, the earlier disease does not trigger the statute of limitations for a lawsuit based on the later disease.The ruling allows many pending suits to continue, and is expected to generate an influx of new litigation.
Tobacco companies are currently involved in numerous lawsuits. The Illinois Court of Appeals for the Fifth District in February unanimously decided [JURIST report] to reopen a $10.1 billion class action against Philip Morris [corporate website] for allegedly misleading consumers into thinking that "light" cigarettes were safer and contained less tar. The ruling came in light of a favorable 2008 US Supreme Court decision [opinion, PDF] that state consumer protection laws can be used to hold cigarette companies liable for the marketing of "light" cigarettes. In December, Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds [corporate website], along with an industry trade group, filed an appeal [JURIST report] with the US Supreme Court to overturn a $271.5 million class action settlement for having "distort[ed] the entire body of public knowledge about the addictive effects of nicotine." The settlement was awarded [opinion, text] by the Louisiana Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit [official website] in order to establish a fund meant to help Louisianans quit smoking.