Illinois high court to hear cigarette appeal

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The Illinois Supreme Court has agreed to review a lower court's reinstatement of a decade-old $10.1 billion class-action verdict against Phillip Morris USA over the nation's biggest cigarette maker's marketing of "light" and "low tar" designations.

The high court, which has thrown out the verdict at least once, decided Wednesday it would hear arguments involving the April opinion by the Mount Vernon-based 5th District Appellate Court, Supreme Court spokesman Joe Tybor confirmed Thursday.

The appellate court ruling restored a 2003 verdict in southwestern Illinois' Madison County that found Philip Morris broke state law by marketing "light" and "low tar" cigarettes as safer than other cigarettes. The lawsuit was the nation's first to accuse a tobacco company of consumer fraud.

The April ruling has been stayed, pending appeals.

The state Supreme Court later tossed that verdict, saying the Federal Trade Commission allowed companies to characterize or label their cigarettes as "light" and "low tar." It said Philip Morris could not be held liable under state law even if the terms were misleading or false.

The U.S. Supreme Court let that ruling stand in late 2006, and a Madison County judge dismissed the case the next month.

But in a 5-4 decision in December 2008, the nation's high court ruled in favor of three Maine residents who said smokers should be able to use state consumer protection laws to sue cigarette makers for promoting "light" and "low tar" brands.

Stephen Tillery, the St. Louis based attorney behind the Illinois class-action lawsuit, has said that decision counted as new evidence. Subsequent appeals led to April's reinstatement of the verdict and the Illinois Supreme Court's agreement on Wednesday.

"The Illinois Supreme Court has already once ordered judgment to be entered in (Philip Morris USA's) favor. We believe that there are compelling reasons why the Illinois Supreme Court should do so again and reverse the intermediate court's unprecedented ruling," said Murray Garnick, senior vice president and associate general counsel for Altria Client Services, which represents Richmond, Virginia-based Altria Group Inc.'s subsidiary Philip Morris.

Tillery countered Thursday that he believes his arguments again will prevail.

"We're very confident that the trial record below will be sustained, and we also think the appellate decision, which extensively reviewed all of these issues, will be sustained," Tillery told The Associated Press. "And we frankly look forward to rearguing this matter before the Illinois Supreme Court."