In general, a tobacco company lawsuit is a legal action filed by a private individual or a group of people (e.g., class action, mass tort, etc.) against a tobacco company. Some common types of claims alleged in tobacco company lawsuits include personal injury, products liability, loss of consortium, fraud, and wrongful death.

For example, if your family member died due to smoke-related injuries, then you may be able to sue a tobacco company for wrongful death. If you also happen to be the former spouse of the deceased, then you may be able to recover damages for loss of consortium.

Although a person may certainly file an individual lawsuit, the more modern trend in tobacco litigation involves class actions and claims for personal injury. Class action plaintiffs also tend to receive more favorable results than their single counterparts due to the vast amount of evidence available to support a claim.

A History Of Lawsuits Against Tobacco Companies in California

The following is a condensed timeline of the history of tobacco litigation in both the U.S. and California state:

  • The first wave of tobacco litigation began in the 1950s and has been on the rise ever since. These initial cases were primarily brought against cigarette manufacturers and alleged claims, such as negligent manufacturing, fraud, and products liability. Since technology and the medical field were not as advanced as they are today, many manufacturers prevailed by dragging injured plaintiffs through lengthy court battles.

    • At this time, manufacturers were also still free to argue that smoking did not cause cancer, and if it did, that the plaintiff assumed the risk by voluntarily opting to smoke. 
  • As more health risks and dangers were discovered in connection with tobacco use and smoking, the number of cases skyrocketed. By the 1980s, the public was aware that tobacco was addictive and did cause cancer. Yet, still the manufacturers and tobacco companies seemed to prevail by asserting the same defenses as they used in the 1950s cases.
  • Finally, in the 1990s, plaintiffs started to win their lawsuits; partly because a document leak proved that tobacco companies were aware that their products were in fact addictive. 
  • Then, in 1999, a major win for plaintiffs occurred in a California court. The jury deciding the case, Henley v. Philip Morris, awarded $51.1 million in damages to the plaintiff who was suffering from inoperable lung cancer. It was the first case in over a decade to reach a California jury.

    • Philip Morris would suffer two more blows in 2000, and then again in 2002 (see Whiteley v. Morris and Bullock v. Morris, respectively). 
  • At the same as the Henley case, 40 other states were embroiled in lawsuits against tobacco companies by alleging violations of both state consumer protection and antitrust laws. Instead of using an argument that Big Tobacco had easily defeated in years past, they alleged that their violations were causing public health costs to soar. It worked. 
  • In November of 1998, 46 states and 4 Big Tobacco companies settled those state cases that rocked the 1990s by creating what was known as the “Master Settlement Agreement (“MSA”). 

    • Under the terms of the MSA, tobacco companies were forced to comply with strict advertising regulations, had to refrain from marketing to children, funded the National Public Education Foundation to prevent minors from smoking, and paid ample damages. 
  • As more and more individuals flooded the courts with tobacco litigation, it soon made sense to start consolidating individual cases against Big Tobacco companies by turning them into class action lawsuits.
  • From 2008 onwards, other major cases involved harm from light cigarettes, chewing tobacco injuries, wrongful death lawsuits related to smoking, and e-cigarettes or vape pens. 
  • As of August 2020, the latest tobacco legislation being pushed through the California Assembly is a ban on flavored tobacco products. 

When Should I File My Suit Against a Tobacco Company in California?

In order to sue a tobacco company, a plaintiff must file their action before the statute of limitations related to their matter expires. If a plaintiff fails to file on time, they will be barred from bringing a case and thus will not be able to recover damages for their injuries.

Most statute of limitations associated with tobacco company lawsuits expire around 2 years from the date the plaintiff was injured or when a harm was discovered. However, it is important that a person review the statute of limitations that specifically relates to their matter. A local California attorney can assist with this crucial task. 

The individual should also decide if they want to pursue a case on their own, initiate a class action, or join an already existing class action lawsuit that is still accepting class members. If they choose to sue as an individual, they should make sure that there is enough evidence to support their claim. 

For instance, in a personal injury case, a plaintiff should gather copies of their medical records, hospital bills, pharmacy receipts, and any other paperwork that can prove they suffered injuries and that those injuries were caused by using tobacco products.

On the other hand, if the person decides to join or initiate a class action, the class must be certified by the court. If the court is able to certify the class, it will decide whether the case should be heard in court, and if so, it will provide notice to those parties who already are, need to be, or can be added to the lawsuit. From this point forward, the remaining steps will depend on the type of class action filed and whether the case goes to trial or is settled out of court.

What Caused the Change in a Tobacco Lawsuit Filing Deadline in California?

In 2011, the Supreme Court of California issued an opinion that would change tobacco lawsuit filing deadlines indefinitely. Specifically, in Pooshs v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., the Court held that an earlier injury caused by smoking tobacco would not trigger the statute of limitations for actions based on an injury discovered later on. 

In other words, a plaintiff who develops a smoking-related illness and initially misses the window to file a lawsuit, may still be able to bring a future action if they are diagnosed with a new injury (e.g., lung cancer) and file in time. The standard time limit to bring such an action is within two years from the date the injury was discovered. 

The same statute of limitations holds true for cases involving injuries caused by malfunctioning smoking devices like e-cigarettes. In such a situation, the injured party will have two years from the date of their e-cigarette injury to bring a products liability lawsuit for personal injury claims. 

Other factors that may increase or decrease the amount of time a person has to file a tobacco lawsuit include the age of the plaintiff, whether they are part of a class action, the type of injury sustained, and if they are incarcerated or on military leave. 

What Types Of Damages are Recoverable for a Tobacco Lawsuit in California?

There are several types of damages that a plaintiff to a tobacco lawsuit in California may be able to recover, such as:

  • Compensatory damages;
  • Loss of current and/or future earnings;
  • General damages;
  • Damages for pain and suffering;
  • Loss of consortium;
  • Funeral and burial expenses;
  • Damages for current and/or future medical expenses;
  • Emotional distress; and
  • Punitive damages.

Depending on the facts of a case, the plaintiff may also receive certain remedies, including:

  • Workers’ compensation benefits; 
  • Court costs; 
  • Attorney fees; 
  • Getting a defective or dangerous tobacco product recalled; 
  • New policies on selling and advertising tobacco products;
  • An injunction that either fully or partially bans smoking in a particular location; and/or
  • Various other remedies that would sufficiently resolve the matter or prevent it from occurring again in the future.

In addition, a plaintiff may be able to join an existing class action, as opposed to filing their own lawsuit. Class actions can be helpful when there is a situation where many plaintiffs have the same grievances, the legal issues pertaining to the injuries are complex, and if it would be more efficient to combine the cases, rather than having the court hear each individual case.

Class actions are typically either settled outside of the courtroom or decided by a jury trial. Regardless of which is chosen, prevailing class members must split the settlement funds or jury rewards amongst themselves. This also means that a portion of that reward must go to court costs and attorney fees (unless an agreement made between the parties says otherwise). 

Additionally, the type of class action settlement fund chosen will determine how the money is distributed and/or what kind of reward the class members will receive. For example, under the claims-made settlement fund option, recovery will be based on damages suffered. If the value of the claim exceeds the fixed amount of recovery, the court may approve a pro rata reduction to adjust how much the defendant will need to pay. Court costs or attorney fees are paid separately.

One final item of note is that the above damages and/or remedies can be reduced if the opposing party raises a successful defense against a claim. For instance, if a plaintiff refuses to seek medical attention for a persistent smoker’s cough and they eventually develop emphysema, the defendant can argue that they failed to mitigate their damages. If the court or jury accepts this defense, then the plaintiff’s damages may be reduced.

Do I Need an Attorney If I am Suing a Tobacco Company in California?

There are many benefits to hiring a California attorney if you have been injured or affected by tobacco products. For one, your lawyer will be able to determine whether you have a viable claim based on California state laws and other regulations that are relevant to tobacco company lawsuits. 

If you do have a valid claim, then your lawyer can help you navigate the legal process, discuss possible legal strategies, and determine what types of remedies you may be able to recover if your lawsuit is successful. Also, among countless other benefits, your lawyer will be able to negotiate on your behalf during a settlement conference or can represent you in court if necessary. 

Finally, a lawyer can assist with initiating a class action lawsuit when appropriate and if the class prevails, can help you in distributing your portion of the class action award to charity if you so desire.