Kia Franklin

Supreme Court Strikes the Match Against Big Tobacco’s Preemption Argument

In a 5-4 decision (Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer), the Supreme Court struck down the preemption arguments of Altria, maker of Marlboro lights, which would have shielded Big Tobacco from smokers' deceptive advertising lawsuits under Maine state law. At issue in these lawsuits is the way Tobacco companies' "light" and "low tar" cigarettes were advertised, the allegation being that they were advertised to lead purchasers to believe they were safer than regular cigarettes.

David Savage reports on what this ruling means, in the LA Times:

The surprising ruling clears the way for several class-action suits to move forward. The suits could endanger the tobacco industry since the best-selling cigarettes in the United States are labeled as light or low tar. The most popular brand is Marlboro Lights, made by Philip Morris and its corporate owner the Altria Group, which was on the losing end of today's decision.

In the past, the court had shielded cigarette makers from being sued by smokers who say they were not warned about the dangers of their smoking habit. The court in 1992 ruled the warning labels on cigarette packs blocked such legal claims. Since 1965, federal law has required that cigarette makers put a health warning on each pack of cigarettes.

But in a 5-4 ruling today, the high court said cigarette makers could be sued under state consumer-protection laws that forbid deceptive advertising. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the court, said the makers of consumer products have a "duty not to deceive" the public in advertising or marketing their products, and the federal warning law does not shield the tobacco industry from being sued under these state laws for "making fraudulent statements."

The consumer advocacy public interest law group, Public Justice, deserves a shout out for their hard work to ensure Tobacco companies can be held accountable for any fraudulent misrepresentations that endanger the public. Below is a statement from Public Justice:

The U.S. Supreme Court has just issued a major decision rejecting federal preemption and preserving access to justice! The Supreme Court held 5 to 4 today in Altria Group, Inc, v. Good that federal law does NOT preempt -- i.e., wipe out -- lawsuits against the tobacco companies for defrauding the public by fraudulently advertising that their "light" cigarettes delivered less tar and nicotine than "regular" cigarettes. Public Justice had joined in an amici brief authored by Georgetown Law Professor David Vladeck urging the Court to rule as it did.

The majority decision by Justice Stevens starts by powerfully reaffirming the presumption against preemption of state law. It says: "When addressing questions of express or implied preemption, we begin our analysis with the assumption that the historic police powers of the States are not to be superseded by the Federal Act unless that was the clear and manifest purpose of Congress." "Thus," it continues, "when the text of a pre-emption clause is susceptible of more than one plausible reading, courts ordinarily accept the reading that disfavors preemption."

Against this background, the Court rejected the tobacco companies' argument that federal law preempts the plaintiffs' claims that Philip Morris violated Maine laws that prohibit fraudulent misrepresentation by promoting and advertising Marlboro and Cambridge Lights as "light" and having "lowered tar and nicotine." The tobacco companies contended that the plaintiffs' claims were: (1) expressly preempted by the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act and (2) impliedly preempted by the "efforts of Congress and the [Federal Trade Commission] for 40 years to implement a national, uniform policy of informing the public about the health risks of smoking." The Court firmly rejected both express and implied preemption.

For background on this case, see this post on SCOTUS blog. Or click here to browse past TortDeform posts on the preemption doctrine.

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Posted at 5:17 PM, Dec 15, 2008 in Preemption
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