In the 1950’s, after years of being declared that smoking is safe and even healthy, scientific studies were published that proved once and for all, that a link existed between cigarette smoking and cancer. At that time, the lawsuits started. Tobacco companies were being sued regarding product liability, negligence and even fraud. You would think that after a more than 60 year time span, the lawsuits would be over. But they’re not.
The early lawsuits
The tobacco companies fought back hard in those early lawsuits and pretty much won the battle. Since scientific studies showing a link between tobacco and cancer were pretty new, there was no direct cause-and-effect established. The companies stated that smoking was safe and that cancer was not caused by tobacco, but by other issues. And, if there is a higher risk of cancer for smokers then smokers assumed that risk on themselves when they purchased the tobacco.
The next waves of lawsuits
Several new rounds of lawsuits were filed again in the 1980s and 1990s. During the 1980s several families alleged that tobacco companies knew that tobacco was addictive and caused cancer and did not warn consumers of the risk. However, there was no real evidence against the tobacco companies and the plaintiff’s lawsuits were largely unsuccessful.
In the 1990s, the tides turned. A man named Merrell Williams, a paralegal in a law firm representing the big tobacco companies, leaked documents showing that tobacco companies not only knew that tobacco was dangerous, they also knew tobacco was addictive and they knowingly marketed tobacco to children to get them hooked. Not too long after that, an executive with Brown & Williamson, a major tobacco company, blew the whistle on “60 Minutes” alleging that not only did tobacco companies know that tobacco was addictive, they also manipulated the nicotine levels in cigarettes in order to keep their customers hooked.
With the new evidence, plaintiffs began winning multi-million dollar lawsuits. The states finally stepped in and sued big tobacco under consumer protection and antitrust laws.
Following the successful lawsuits, tobacco companies have made major changes. They are extremely restricted regarding advertising and they pay a large amount of money to the states to help offset costs of healthcare.
What’s happening now?
In the 1990’s a group of Floridians joined a class-action lawsuit against the big tobacco companies over the claim that “light” cigarettes were healthy. The class-action lawsuit was originally thrown out, even though the jury found that tobacco companies withheld information related to how addictive and damaging can tobacco can be. The families decided to pursue individual claims based upon the findings in the class-action lawsuit. The tobacco companies fought back stating that individuals should not be able to use jury findings when the suit was thrown out. They alleged that their due process was violated.
In the past twenty years, this fight has been making its way through the court system and in early June of 2014, the Supreme Court had the final say. Florida families, who were part of the original class-action suit, can sue the tobacco companies using the original jury findings that tobacco is addictive and the tobacco companies knew. It is expected that the tobacco companies will probably pursue a settlement with the remaining litigants.