Altria Group Inc. (MO)’s Philip Morris unit won’t have to face a group lawsuit by New Hampshire smokers who claim the company misled them on the safety of so-called light cigarettes, the state’s highest court said.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court reversed an earlier ruling by a state judge who certified the lawsuit as a class action, allowing smokers to pursue their claims as a group. The smokers claim that Philip Morris falsely represented that Marlboro Lights cigarettes would deliver less tar and nicotine than other cigarettes.
Individual issues predominated over common ones, ruling out class action treatment, the New Hampshire Supreme Court said in an eight-page decision today. The court agreed with Philip Morris that many prospective class members may have been aware of reports that smokers compensated when using Marlboro Lights by inhaling more deeply or by covering up ventilation holes in the cigarette paper or filter, thus receiving similar amounts of tar and nicotine.
“Given the volume of information available to consumers from 1976 to 1995 about the compensation phenomenon, we conclude, as a matter of law, that the number of class members exposed to this information was not de minimus,” the court said. The trial court “unsustainably exercised its discretion” in granting class certification, the panel said.
“The court recognized correctly that there are too many individual issues for this case to be treated as a class action,” Murray Garnick, Altria Client Services senior vice president, said in a statement. “This court joins 15 courts which have rejected these cases on a variety of legal and factual grounds.”
Stephen Tillery, an attorney for the smokers, didn’t immediately return a call for comment on the ruling. The lawsuit sought to represent all New Hampshire smokers of Marlboro Lights cigarettes from 1995 onward.
The case is Lawrence v. Philip Morris USA Inc., 2011-0574, Supreme Court of New Hampshire (Concord).
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