Photographer: JB REED/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Smokers Get $25 Apiece From Philip Morris USA Over Lights

  • Massachusetts judgment is for deceptive marketing of Marlboros
  • Class action sought $600 million and went on for 17 years

Almost 200,000 Marlboro Lights smokers will get $25 each plus interest --  a fraction of the $600 million the plaintiffs had sought from Altria Group Inc.’s Philip Morris USA -- after a Massachusetts judge found they were duped into buying what they thought was a safer cigarette. 

QuickTake War on Smoking

The plaintiffs “paid too much for the misrepresented cigarette,” but their attorneys failed to prove that they shared similar injuries beyond overpaying, Superior Court Judge Edward P. Leibensperger wrote in a 41-page decision released Monday, after 17 years of litigation, ordering Philip Morris to pay $4.94 million plus interest.

Although Marlboro Lights were just as harmful as Marlboro Reds, the judge wrote, “I have no evidential basis for quantifying the actual damages of each class member.” 

The judge, who reached his ruling after hearing evidence for five weeks during a bench trial last year, rejected plaintiffs’ attempt to quantify the injury through a questionnaire asking smokers what they would have paid for an imaginary cigarette that was safer.

‘Not Over Yet’

Tom Urmy, a lawyer with Shapiro Haber & Urmy, said plaintiffs will appeal the judge’s decision not to order Philip Morris to give up $68 million in pre-tax profits on sales of Marlboro Lights in Massachusetts. 

“The defendant should not be allowed to profit” from a marketing fraud, Urmy said in an interview. “It’s not over yet.”

With interest, the award increases to $15.1 million, according to attorneys involved in the case. The class action had 197,000 members.

“The court clearly recognized the evidence didn’t support the outrageous amount sought by plaintiffs,” said Murray Garnick, associate general counsel for Altria.

Deceptive Marketing

Plaintiffs’ lawyers once banked on the strategy of going after “light” cigarettes for economic damages. In the years since the Massachusetts case was filed, in November 1998, courts have narrowed the scope of class action litigation, making it harder to certify classes in personal-injury and economic-damages cases. In a similar case against Philip Morris, the Illinois Supreme Court last year threw out a $10 billion award a judge made in 2003 to buyers of Marlboro Lights.

The relatively tiny award in Monday’s decision is a blow to the plaintiffs, but in addition to the $15.1 million they didn’t come away empty-handed. The ruling of deceptive marketing adds fuel to several personal-injury lawsuits pending in Massachusetts, said Edward Sweda Jr., senior attorney at the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University’s School of Law.

“Plaintiffs’ lawyers will try to rely on this and ask it to be considered by these courts,” Sweda said, calling the ruling a “significant victory” in cigarette foes’ battle against tobacco industry marketing.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has banned the use of the label “Light” on cigarettes since 2010.