Author: Natalie Alcoba
Three tobacco giants have been ordered by a Canadian court to pay billions of dollars in moral and punitive damages to nearly 100,000 smokers, in what has been hailed as an “historic judgment” by the plaintiffs in Quebec.
Imperial Tobacco Canada, Rothmans, Benson & Hedges, and JTI-Macdonald were found to have violated their general duty not to cause injury to another, their duty to inform their clients of the risks and dangers of their products, and their obligation not to mislead their clients. A Quebec Superior Court slapped the three cigarette manufacturers — which have already vowed to appeal — with damages totaling CAD $15.5 billion ($12 billion US), to be split among them.
The ruling means that plaintiffs suffering from lung or throat cancer are entitled to receive CAD $80,000 or $100,000 ($63,000 or $80,000), while those afflicted with emphysema can receive CAD $24,000 or $30,000 ($19,000 or $24,000), plus the interest accumulated since 1998, which is when the lawsuit commenced.
“Today marks an important day for the victims of tobacco who have waited almost 17 years for this moment”, said Mario Bujold, executive director of the Quebec Council on Tobacco and Health on Monday.
Imperial Tobacco was held responsible for CAD $10.5 billion ($8.3 billion), while Rothmans, Benson & Hedges bear responsibility for CAD $3.1 billion ($2.4 billion), and JTI-Macdonald the remaining CAD $2 billion ($1.6 billion).
“By choosing not to inform either the public health authorities or the public directly of what they knew, the Companies chose profits over the health of their customers,” Justice Brian Riordan wrote in his 276-page judgment. “Whatever else can be said about that choice, it is clear that it represent a fault of the most egregious nature and one that must be considered in the context of punitive damages.”
Two class actions were heard as part of the same trial. One, spearheaded by the Council, included 99,957 Quebec smokers and ex-smokers who had developed emphysema, lung cancer, or throat cancer. A second class action was much broader, representing 918,218 people addicted to tobacco in Quebec. While the Quebec Council on Tobacco and Health said the judge sided with the plaintiffs in both cases, only those in the first group will receive compensation.
But Rothmans, Benson & Hedges said the cases are “far from over”, a sentiment shared by the other manufacturers.
“We will vigorously appeal this lower court’s judgment, and believe that we have very strong legal grounds to overturn the judgment in its entirety,” RBH spokeswoman Anne Edwards said in a statement.
She noted that not a single class member, in nearly three years of trial, “showed up to say that he or she was unaware of the risks of smoking,” and said given the “prevailing law and common sense” the judgement should not stand.
JTI-Macdonald Corp. also said it “fundamentally disagrees” with the judgment and intends to file an appeal.
“Since the 1950s, Canadians have had a very high awareness of the health risks of smoking. That awareness has been reinforced by the health warnings printed on every legal cigarette package for more than 40 years,” it said in a statement, adding that the company complies with all Canadian and Quebec laws.
In its statement, Imperial Tobacco Canada called it “astounding to be handed this decision when the federal government has set the standard for the conduct of Imperial Tobacco Canada with which the company has always complied.”
Still, Andre Lesperance, one of the lawyers involved in the case for the plaintiffs, said on Monday that the companies “lied” to their customers and “hurt their right to life,” The Canadian Press reported.
“It’s a great victory for victims as well as for society in general,” he said.