Minnesota Panel Lets Marlboro Lights Class Action Proceed

MINNEAPOLIS - (Mealey's) A lawsuit alleging that Philip Morris USA used deceptive trade practices and false advertising to market its Marlboro Lights cigarettes may proceed in Minnesota as a class action, the state Court of Appeals ruled Dec. 28, reversing in part a lower court's dismissal of the claims (Gregory Curtis, et al. v. Altria Group, Inc., et al., No. A10-215, Minn. App.).

"The district court erred in dismissing appellants' claims under Minn. Stat. § 8.31, subd. 3a," the appellate panel said, "because appellants have established a sufficient public benefit to maintain the action, and neither the attorney general's litigation against Philip Morris, nor recent federal legislation governing Philip Morris's conduct deprives this action of the public benefit required to pursue an action under Minn. Stat. § 8.31, subd. 3a. The district court also erred in concluding that appellants, in pursuing this action, act as agents or representatives of the state such that their claims are barred by the Tobacco Settlement release."

Because those actions created a legal remedy for the plaintiffs, the panel affirmed dismissal of their unjust enrichment claim that was based on the lack of such remedy.  The panel also reversed the Hennepin County District Court's denial of dismissal of claims against Philip Morris parent company Altria Inc., saying the plaintiffs failed to establish that Altria used Philip Morris as its alter ego such that the doctrine of vicarious personal jurisdiction came into play.  And the court affirmed the District Court's refusal to apply nonmutual, offensive collateral estoppel that would have allowed the plaintiffs to bring in evidence from United States v. Philip Morris USA Inc. (449 F.Supp.2d 1 [D.D.C. 2006] [DOJ], aff'd in part, vacated in part, 566 F.3d 1095 [D.C. Cir. 2009]). The court remanded the case to the District Court, where it is No. 27CV0118042.

The District Court in January 2004 denied class status, but on reconsideration certified the class in November 2004, saying a class was, "pragmatically, the only method whereby purchasers of Marlboro Lights in Minnesota can seek redress for the alleged deception."  The District Court later granted partial summary judgment, dismissing the plaintiffs' cause of action under Minnesota Statutes Section 8.31, subdivision 3a, for failure to confer a public benefit and, also, as barred by a $6.1 billion settlement the state reached with the tobacco industry in 1998.  The District Court also dismissed the plaintiffs' unjust enrichment claim.

The class comprises those who bought Marlboro Lights in Minnesota for personal use from 1972 through November 2004 and seeks refunds for money spent on cigarettes.

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