Court says smokers can sue
BY Washington Post
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
12/16/08 at 2:55 AM
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court Monday said smokers may sue tobacco companies over what they allege to be deceptive marketing of "light" cigarettes.
The court split 5-4 in saying that a group of Maine smokers may proceed with their suit against Philip Morris USA, now owned by Altria. The smokers sued under state laws regulating deceptive trade practices, and the company countered by saying that federal law that regulates cigarette advertising pre-empted state law.
The decision in the cigarette case is the latest in a growing national debate over "pre-emption," a doctrine under which state product liability lawsuits against companies can be thrown out under federal law.
Courts are filled with such cases, and the Supreme Court decided several last term in favor of corporations. The justices already this term have heard another major pre-emption case, involving the pharmaceutical industry, but have not announced a decision.
Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with the court's usually liberal bloc in the decision, which was written by Justice John Paul Stevens. They were joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissent that was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.
The smokers have cited internal company documents to accuse Philip Morris of falsely marketing low-tar and low-nicotine cigarettes as less harmful than regular brands. Even if light cigarettes have less tar and nicotine, smokers compensate by taking longer puffs or smoking more cigarettes, they argue.
They contend that Philip Morris has known about such "compensatory" techniques for decades.
But their lawsuit was dismissed earlier by a judge who said the state law involved a smoking and health claim that was the territory of federal law.
In other cases, justices:
Threw out an appeals court ruling that dismissed claims by four British men that their treatment as Guantanamo Bay detainees amounted to torture and abuse of their religious rights. The justices instructed the appeals court to reconsider the lawsuit because the detainees have some rights under the Constitution.
Turned down another challenge to Barack Obama's eligibility to serve as president. The appeal by Cort Wrotnowski of Greenwich, Conn., on claims of failure to meet citizenship requirements, was denied without comment. It echoed an appeal rejected by the court last week. At least two other appeals remain at the court.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.