The term class action refers to a lawsuit which is usually brought by one or more persons. This is on behalf of a group of others who are in a similar situation. Everyone involved is required to share similar legal issues in order to create a class action. Additionally, there must be enough individuals involved in the case that it would not make sense to bring separate lawsuits.
Unless you opt out of a class action, your claims are included in that lawsuit. Not every claim can become a class action. To reiterate, in order to certify a class action, you must generally show that:
- The class members have the same type of injury;
- The class is clearly defined and easily identifiable;
- The class is so numerous that joining individual plaintiffs to your lawsuit is impractical; and
- The class members’ legal and factual claims are very similar.
Because of obvious similarities in many tobacco-related personal injury claims, modern tobacco litigation relies heavily on class action lawsuits. An example of this would be a recent class action in which three plaintiffs sued several tobacco companies on behalf of over 500,000 people in Florida. The class members alleged that they all suffered similar smoking-related illnesses.
The History of Tobacco Litigation
Over the last decade, many people have attempted to hold tobacco manufacturers liable for wrongful death, injury, and even medical expenses related to cigarette smoking. This includes the use of tobacco products. The dangers of smoking have been widely documented; as of 2006 the Florida Supreme Court ruled that smoking tobacco can result in a series of cancers, and other illnesses.
According to the Center for Disease Control (“CDC”), nearly one in five deaths in the United States is smoking-related. And, tobacco use results in annual medical costs of over $75 billion. Many people who have experienced the harmful effects of smoking have started to explore their options to hold these cigarette companies accountable, as previously mentioned. However, tobacco litigation has historically been difficult.
In the past, tobacco companies could argue that smoking did not cause many of the illnesses we now associate with tobacco use. As scientific research improved, several illnesses started to be linked with smoking. Out of necessity, the tobacco companies changed their legal defense. Rather than denying the link between their product and severe illnesses, the argument evolved to state that since smoking is a personal choice, tobacco companies should not be liable for any resulting injuries.
A brief outline of history of American tobacco litigation includes:
- 1950’s: Plaintiffs begin filing lawsuits claiming negligent manufacturing, product liability, and fraud. Tobacco companies overwhelmingly win these cases, as previously mentioned;
- 1980’s: New arguments are introduced which claim that tobacco companies were aware of, and failed to disclose, the addictive nature of tobacco products. These arguments also included their link to cancer;
- 1990’s: Because of tobacco company document leaks, plaintiffs begin to win tobacco-related claims. Most states file lawsuits alleging violations of state consumer protection laws, and argue that the tobacco products, advertising, and business practices damage public health; and
- 1998: Most states enter a Master Settlement Agreement, which establishes state tobacco funds and prohibits certain activities. This includes tobacco advertising that targets children.
Since 1998, the number of successful tobacco cases has increased. However, tobacco companies still continue to aggressively fight personal injury and class action claims.
Common Issues in Tobacco Class Action Lawsuits
Cigarette manufacturers have been successful defending against the following claims:
- Products Liability;
- Failure to warn;
- Wrongful death;
- Fraud; and/or
- Deceptive business practices and other consumer protection laws.
It is important to note that class action litigation requires careful drafting of your complaint and other pleadings. Certifying a plaintiff class is a very complicated and technical process. Without the assistance of an experienced tobacco class action lawyer, it’s highly difficult to successfully certify a plaintiff class.
Some common tobacco injuries include but may not be limited to:
- Cancer(s) of the lungs, mouth, and/or throat;
- Heart disease;
- Pregnancy complications, fetal injury, premature birth, and/or low birth weight; and/or
- Gum disease and tooth loss.
Why Should I Join a Tobacco Class Action?
Tobacco litigation is a complex and sometimes frustrating process, requiring extensive research and legal expertise. Additionally, tobacco claims involve massive amounts of evidence, the hiring of expensive expert witnesses, and aggressive defense strategies. This is why some personal injury lawyers will not take on individual tobacco suits.
A class action lawsuit can make the litigation process more efficient, as well as increase the case’s value. A tobacco class action lawsuit can minimize the risks involved with suing large, well-funded tobacco companies.
What Are the Steps to Take to Join the Tobacco Class Action Lawsuit?
The steps required to join a tobacco class action lawsuit are essentially the same as joining any other class action lawsuit. As previously mentioned, there are certain requirements to bring a class action lawsuit; once these requirements are met, the group may proceed with the suit.
Initially, a person or group of people will file a putative class action lawsuit against the defendant. In this case, that would be a tobacco company. The court then decides whether or not to certify the lawsuit as a class action. If the group is certified, the original group will represent the entire class action group, and it will move forward as a class action lawsuit. If the court refuses to certify the class, they will often give their reason why. Generally speaking, it is because they do not think the class is complete. Meaning, there could be more potential plaintiffs to join the class.
Any person who could be affected by the class action lawsuit is entitled to receive notice of it being initiated. Due to the fact that many class actions are very large, notices of class actions can be put in newspapers, TV commercials, or mailing lists. To determine if you will be able to bring your lawsuit, it’s important to contact a lawyer as soon as you are aware of a class action. Tobacco litigation attorneys can help the process by notifying you of any lawsuits seeking more plaintiffs, and by ensuring all requirements are met.
Secondhand Smoke Class Actions
Many plaintiffs have successfully pursued secondhand smoke class action lawsuits. An example of this would be a group of non-smoking flight attendants who sued tobacco companies for injuries related to secondhand smoke in the 1990’s. This case settled for approximately $300 million. However, many secondhand smoke cases are very fact specific. If you have questions about secondhand smoke injuries, you should contact an experienced personal injury lawyer.
Legal cases involving exposure to second-hand smoke may have been considered doomed thirty years ago, there has been a significant change in public opinion as well as in the law to make these cases more successful. However, this may still be a difficult option to pursue. This is due to the fact that it is difficult to prove that your illness is related to exposure to smoke if you are a smoker; it is considerably more difficult to prove the same link if you are a non-smoker. A class action lawsuit may prove successful, especially if there are numerous other plaintiffs who all complain of the same injury or of the same core issue.
What Are The Damages Available in Tobacco Lawsuits?
Damages available in tobacco lawsuits will vary, depending on the lawsuit. Class members will usually be entitled to a portion of the damages paid by the defendant. These damages are intended to reimburse the plaintiffs for costs associated with their injuries, such as medical bills.
Since these lawsuits can involve large numbers of people, the amount received may be negligible. Class action members often receive rebates, products, or services from the company. Attorneys fees are typically taken from the damages award, rather than received up front.
Class action settlements are common, and occur when the two parties will determine a settlement. They then present the settlement to the court. If the court approves of the settlement, members of the suit can opt out of the settlement. Any member can object to the settlement with the court.
A few common defenses utilized by tobacco companies could include, but not be limited to:
- Contributory negligence;
- Comparative negligence;
- Assumption of risk; and/or
- No mitigation of damages.
Consult with a Tobacco Class Action Lawyer
If you suffer from a smoking-related illness, you should consult with a skilled and knowledgeable tobacco litigation lawyer. Additionally, you may also consider consulting with a personal injury lawyer.
An experienced personal injury attorney can offer you advice as to whether you should join a class action, file an individual lawsuit, or pursue another course of action. Additionally, the attorney will represent you in court as needed.