Philadelphia, PA (Vocus/PRWEB) December 31, 2010
If Stephen Sheller gets his way, "Big Tobacco" could get stung again with huge damages for misleading consumers.
Sheller and Martha Wivell of the Philadelphia law firm Sheller, P.C. represent plaintiffs in a lawsuit given a green light Tuesday (December 28, 2010) by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The suit claims that Philip Morris misled smokers by marketing low-tar or "light" cigarettes as a healthier form of tobacco to persuade smokers not to quit. The three-judge panel of the appeals court also authorized the suit to proceed as a class action on behalf of people who purchased Marlboro Lights in Minnesota for personal consumption from 1972 to 2004.
“The 'lights fraud' could be the largest fraud perpetrated on consumers in the United States” says Sheller, once an amount for restitution and punitive damages are determined.
What sets this action and potential recovery apart from other tobacco litigation is that it’s based on the state consumer protection statutes of Minnesota, claiming consumers were not being sold what they were promised. The court also ruled that the “public benefit” requirement for a claim alleging violation of the consumer protection laws was met because Philip Morris’ “light” cigarette advertising was made to the public as a whole.
Instead of damages based on illness due to tobacco use, individuals who bought Marlboro Lights in the time period would be eligible to recover what they actually paid for “light” cigarettes, or what Philip Morris received for selling “lights” in Minnesota.
This case also differs in that the “look back” spans more than thirty years. Many states only allow claims to reach back for several years.
For decades, tobacco manufacturers successfully warded off claims by plaintiff’s attorneys. Only in recent years have lawyers and states’ attorney generals made inroads against the industry.
Earlier in this decade, Sheller exposed a huge chink in “Big Tobacco’s” armor. An innovative legal strategy that was a precursor to this claim resulted in a $10.1 billion verdict against Phillip Morris in Illinois (Price v. Philip Morris Inc., 2003 WL 22597608 (Ill.Cir. 2003) and earned him the nickname “Commander of the Light Brigade.” Sheller was a finalist in Public Justice’s 2003 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award for “discovering 'light' cigarette fraud and initiating the litigation strategy to remedy the deception."
Sheller’s persistence has paid off—tobacco companies can no longer place the words “light” or “mild” on their packages. Nor can there be any mention of “low tar“ or “low nicotine.”
This latest win is in keeping with Sheller’s track record, especially of late. He and his firm have taken the lead against major corporations accused of making false claims to the government and defrauding consumers with unsafe products and questionable marketing practices. In less than two years, the firm has been directly responsible for recouping more than $4 billion in settlements under the False Claims Act.
“Similar to the substantial False Claims Act recoveries from the pharmaceutical companies, the tobacco industry is learning they may have to pay all the money back, not just their profits” says Sheller. “They’ve been getting away with fraudulent tactics for years and stalling with litigation as they continue to rack up profits. We hope this will teach them a lesson.”
Wivell, who was part of the team that in 1998 tried the state of Minnesota’s case against the tobacco industry was pleased with the decision but noted it is just another step in the battle against Big Tobacco. “It’s like moving a mountain – you can do it – but you do it one load at a time, because that’s the way it’s done.”
Kay Nord Hunt of Minneapolis, Minnesota’s Lommen, Abdo, Cole, King & Stageberg, P.A., an experienced appellate lawyer, took the lead in the appeal, working with Sheller and Wivell.
Philip Morris USA says they are considering whether to appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
The case is Gregory Curtis, et al. v. Altria Group, Inc., et al., No. A10-215, Minn. App. and can be read at http://www.mncourts.gov/opinions/coa/current/opa100215-1228.pdf.
About Sheller, P.C.
Sheller P.C. is among the preeminent plaintiff and qui tam whistleblower law firms in the United States. Stephen A. Sheller, Esq., Founding Partner, has been an effective advocate for victims of fraud and injury nationwide for over three decades.
Attorneys at Sheller, P.C. currently represent whistleblowers in the pharmaceutical industry, business and government, achieving as lead attorneys over $4.2 billion in pharmaceutical qui tam and False Claims Act verdicts and settlements in 2009-2010.
The firm is currently investigating and litigating defective hip replacement implants, injury caused by administration of antipsychotic drugs to children and other products liability and injury cases.
Bellwether verdicts in 2009 and 2010 include a $520 million pharmaceutical whistleblower settlement(United States, ex rel. James Wetta v. AstraZeneca Corp., No. 04-0379, E.D. Pa.), the largest in the state according to PA Lawyer Magazine. Others include $2.5 million in antidepressants and birth defects (Kilker v. SmithKline Beecham Corp. dba GlaxoSmithKline, 2007-001813, Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania) and $1.8 million in antibiotics and tendon injuries (Schedin v. Johnson & Johnson, 08-cv-05743, combined for trial in In re Levaquin Products Liability Litigation, 08-md-01943, U.S. District Court, District of Minnesota (Minneapolis)).