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Tobacco Litigation Trials: 1954-present

Plaintiffs Find A New Argument, State Governments Seek Payback, The Feds Hop On Board, Suggestions For Further Reading

Plaintiffs: Smokers, their next of kin, and the state and federal governments
Defendants: Philip Morris Company; R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company; Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation; Lorillard Tobacco Corporation; The Liggett Group, Inc.; American Tobacco Company; British American Tobacco, P.L.C.; and other tobacco-related entities
Place: Various
Dates of Trials: 1954-present

SIGNIFICANCE: The tobacco litigation cases represent one of the largest class action movements in legal history; coupled with state and federal action against tobacco companies, the actions reflect a growing condemnation of the tobacco industry that would have been unthinkable until recently, and which may ultimately lead to similar suits against other makers of controversial products.

In the mid-1950s, two decades after university studies began linking smoking to lung disease, smokers began suing tobacco companies on personal-injury grounds. These plaintiffs, most of whom had health problems for which they blamed their smoking habits, based their suits on product liability principles, arguing that tobacco was an inherently dangerous product for which the manufacturer should be held accountable.

The next 30 years saw two waves of unsuccessful tobacco litigation: from the 1950s to the early 1970s, and throughout the 1980s. The plaintiffs in the second wave relied more heavily on the fact that the federal government had begun to speak out against the dangers of smoking. The first major governmental warning was the 1964 Surgeon General's report stating that smoking was a habit-forming health risk. In 1965, the federal government began requiring tobacco products to carry health warnings on its labels, and in 1969 it banned radio and television cigarette advertisements.

Despite the increased public awareness of the dangers of smoking the second wave of tobacco litigation proved to be a defeat for the smoker/plaintiffs, just as the first had been. The smokers faced many strategic, financial, and legal difficulties in their litigation. As individual plaintiffs, they had to rely on attorneys who were often solo practitioners or members of smaller firms to do battle against wealthy corporations and well-funded corporate counsel. The many smokers' lawsuits were not coordinated with one another. The plaintiffs thus lacked financial and legal resources and organization, while the tobacco industry had both in abundance. In legal terms, moreover, almost all of the plaintiffs' arguments had a fatal flaw: the smokers themselves had made the conscious decision to smoke, and so they, and not the tobacco companies, were ultimately responsible for their illnesses in jurors' eyes. The ever growing weight of research and expert opinion that smoking was dangerous made this relatively easy to prove in court. The paradox was that the knowledge of the dangers was becoming so widespread that the smokers had to shoulder even more of the blame for their injuries, since they had known the risks of smoking but had chosen to smoke anyway.

The results of this paradox were striking. From the mid-1950s to the late 1980s, between 300 and 800 plaintiffs filed personal-injury suits against the major tobacco companies. Of these, fewer than 30 went to trial. Of those that did go to trial, plaintiffs won in only a few cases and all of these were reversed on appeal. The tobacco companies' defenses were impregnable.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962