An Illinois judge has refused to reopen a class-action lawsuit that produced a $10.1 billion verdict against cigarette-maker Philip Morris, handing the plaintiffs their latest setback in legal action now more than a decade old.
It was not immediately clear Thursday whether Stephen Tillery, the St. Louis attorney who pursued the lawsuit involving so-called "light" and "low tar" cigarettes, would appeal Madison County Circuit Judge Dennis Ruth's ruling. Messages left with Tillery's office were not returned.
A now-retired Madison County judge found in 2003 that Philip Morris misled customers about "light" and "low tar" cigarettes and broke Illinois law by marketing them as safer. His decision ended a two-month trial that both sides said at the time was the nation's first involving a lawsuit accusing a tobacco company of consumer fraud.
The Illinois Supreme Court later threw out that verdict, saying the Federal Trade Commission allowed companies to characterize or label their cigarettes as "light" and "low tar," so Philip Morris could not be held liable under state law even if such terms could be found false or misleading.
The U.S. Supreme Court let that ruling stand in late 2006, and Byron dismissed the case the next month. But in December 2008, the nation's high court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled in a lawsuit filed on behalf of three Maine residents that smokers may use state consumer protection laws to sue cigarette makers for the way they promote "light" and "low tar" brands.
An Illinois appellate court cleared the way last year for Tillery to argue that that ruling could be applied to reinstate the Illinois one. But Ruth ruled against Tillery on Wednesday, leaving it up to the attorney to take the matter to Illinois appellate courts, including the state's supreme court.
"The trial court correctly recognized that the plaintiffs could not meet their burden of proof to reopen the judgment," Murray Garnick, senior vice president and associate general counsel for Altria Client Services, which represents Altria Group Inc. subsidiary Philip Morris USA, said in a statement. "Specifically, the plaintiffs did not show that they would have been successful before the Illinois Supreme Court."
The class-action lawsuit involves 1.1 million people who bought "light" cigarettes in Illinois.