California Court: Smokers Can Sue Tobacco Companies Over New Illness

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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