Price v. Phillip Morris: Reversal of Fortune in $10 Billion Tobacco Class Action

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Following an extraordinary procedural journey, the case that began as Price v. Phillip Morris and yielded a $10 billion verdict against the tobacco giant in 2003 has been revived.  The plaintiff class had alleged that Phillip Morris’s advertising, for what it called “light” and “low tar or nicotine” cigarettes, was deceptive, as these cigarettes were not in fact safer than regular cigarettes, and that the company knew it.

After the plaintiffs’ initial victory in Price, Phillip Morris appealed.  The case then bypassed the Appellate Court of Illinois and went straight to the Illinois Supreme Court, where the lower court’s verdict was reversed based on Philip Morris’s claim that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had authorized cigarette companies to use “light, low or reduced” in descriptions of cigarettes.  See Price v. Philip Morris, Inc., 2005 Ill. LEXIS 2071 (Ill. 2005) (available here).  Thereafter, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision, and the trial court dismissed the case in 2006.

Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed a case that took up similar preemption issues — Altria Group, Inc. v. Good, 555 U.S. 70 (2008) — and held that the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act (FCLAA), 15 U.S.C. §§1331-41 (2011), did not preempt a claim under a Maine statute (similar to the Illinois statute) for deceptive advertising of “light” cigarettes (opinion available here).  The Price plaintiffs immediately filed an appeal with the Fifth District Appellate Court on the grounds that the Court’s ruling in Good demonstrated that the Illinois Supreme Court incorrectly decided Price.  The Fifth District agreed (dismissing Phillip Morris’s argument that plaintiffs’ appeal was untimely), and has reinstated the case and remanded it back to the trial court for further proceedings.

Through a lengthy and convoluted legal process that began in early 2003, Price v. Phillip Morris has come full circle and once again sits in the Madison County Circuit Court, awaiting whatever “further proceedings” may be required to finally resolve this case.  Phillip Morris is expected to appeal the Fifth District’s decision to the Illinois Supreme Court.