MN Supreme Court's dismissal of Marb Lights lawsuit represents victory for big tobacco

Minnesota Marb Light smokers can't bring a new lawsuit against Philip Morris, the court ruled.
Minnesota Marb Light smokers can't bring a new lawsuit against Philip Morris, the court ruled.

In 1998, then-Minnesota Attorney General "Skip" Humphrey and Philip Morris reached a $6.1 billion settlement after the state alleged that the tobacco company used deceptive marketing, advertising, and research to encourage people to smoke.

The settlement barred any future lawsuits regarding Philip Morris's practices. Yet in 2001, a Minnesota smoker filed another lawsuit against Philip Morris, alleging that the company continued to use the same practices in marketing Marlboro Light cigarettes even after the 1998 settlement. That suit was broadened into a class-action a few years later.

But yesterday, in a 3-2 decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court granted big tobacco a rare courtroom victory, ruling that the 1998 settlement precludes the new class-action suit from going forward.

In the court's majority opinion, Justice Christopher Dietzen writes that the new class-action lawsuit is fundamentally similar to the state's original lawsuit. Since the 1998 settlement "expressly released and barred respondents' consumer protection claims," it "is binding on respondents" and prevents new deceptive-marketing litigation, Dietzen wrote.

However, in a dissenting opinion, former Viking-turned-Supreme Court Justice Alan Page argued that the new case should be allowed to proceed because the false and deceptive advertising claims continued to occur after the 1998 settlement.

The class-action lawsuit included people who bought Marlboro Light cigarettes for personal use between 1972 and November 2004. It alleged Philip Morris used deceptive trade practices and false advertising when it marketed the cigarettes as "light," as company memos showed that Philip Morris executives knew "light" cigarettes were just as bad for smokers as any others.

In 2009, Congress passed a law banning the marketing of "light" cigarettes, and as a result Philip Morris changed the name of Marlboro Lights to Marlboro Gold Pack.

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