Court: Smokers Can Sue Tobacco Companies Over New Illnesses

On Thursday, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that smokers can sue tobacco companies after being diagnosed with a disease such as lung cancer, even if the smoker experienced other smoking-related illnesses years earlier, the Los Angeles Times reports (Dolan, Los Angeles Times, 5/6).


In 1998, California passed a law allowing residents to file lawsuits against tobacco companies.

State law requires individuals injured by a product to sue within two years of discovering the injury (Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, 5/6).

Case Details

The state Supreme Court case involved Nikki Pooshs, a former smoker who was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in 1989 and periodontal disease a few years later. Both illnesses were related to smoking.

After being diagnosed with lung cancer in 2003, Pooshs sued Phillip Morris and other cigarette makers. The tobacco industry argued that her suit should be thrown out because Pooshs did not sue during the two-year window after her first smoking-related illness was discovered.

Ruling Details

In yesterday's ruling, Justice Joyce Kennard wrote that an early tobacco-related illness does not start the two-year clock for filing a lawsuit if the early disease is "separate and distinct" from a later condition (Los Angeles Times, 5/6).

The justices ruled that an individual who is diagnosed with a new disease not caused by the earlier illness has two years to sue after the date of the new diagnosis (San Francisco Chronicle, 5/6).

Tobacco Industry Response

In a statement, Phillip Morris said the ruling would affect "a very small fraction" of lawsuits.

The tobacco company said, "Although we are disappointed with the decision, the California Supreme Court made it clear that it was not addressing the merits of this case or any case. Rather, the decision addresses a narrow technical point of law relating to the statute of limitations" (Los Angeles Times, 5/6).

Next Steps

Pooshs' lawsuit now goes back to a federal appeals court.

Lloyd LeRoy, an attorney for Pooshs, said the appellate court is likely to overturn a lower court ruling that dismissed Pooshs' claims. The lawsuit then would return to a district court, where Pooshs would need to prove her claims (Gullo, Bloomberg, 5/5).

Pamela Stage
Rebuttal to Monica Keller Your argument is flawed Monica. Simply reasoning out that something may bring consequences, and once warned, that the person should have known better does not track when we are talking about an addiction. Having smoked for 20 years, I can tell you unequivicably that quitting cigarettes was the hardest experience in my life. Not only did it take me years to quit, but that pull to smoke is beyond reason or consequence. I dreamed of smoking for 5 years after I quit. If you have never gone through something like that, you don't know what it is like and how compelling it is. Big tobacco did manipulate us into thinking it was safe to smoke, even when they knew different. The world needs to outlaw the cultivation and sale of this and all tobacco related products NOW.
Evelyn Kha
Evelyn Kha
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Scott Zettlemoyer
I smoked for 40 years, quit 3 years ago and had my upper right lung lobe removed in Dec in order to remove cancer. I now know it was wrong to smoke but it was not considered wrong when I started. Nicotine is a very addictive drug that big tobacco manipulated and used cigarettes as a way to deliver the drug. This they knew long before the US Surgeon General declared cigarettes to be dangerous. Civil action provides little solice in this misery for millions. Until, big tobacco is declared criminal, its all hooey.
Monica Keller
As a parent, how do I instill responsibility and accountability for one's actions, when so many instances nowadays shows my children differently. You know smoking is going to give you cancer, it says so on the package, we all know it does, yet you continue to smoke and then you want to sue when you have cancer? You know walking out into oncoming traffic your going to get hit, but you do it anyway and then you sue the car that hit you? You know that cup of coffee is steaming hot, you put it between your legs instead of in the cup holder, as you back up out of the parking space, only to have to slam on your brakes to avoid hitting another car, and you sue the fast food place for burning you with hot coffee? If someone makes a certain decision, knowing the probable outcomes which might happen, there has to be some accountability somewhere for their decision. I just feel if you make a big enough stink about things you get what you want to shut you up. How grown-up is that?

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