Minnesota Supreme Court Says Tobacco Settlement Bars 'Light Cigarette' Suit

Minnesota Supreme Court Says Tobacco Settlement Bars 'Light Cigarette' Suit

ST. PAUL, Minn. - (Mealey's) The Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) between 46 states and major tobacco companies precludes private suits for wrongful conduct occurring even after the settlement's 1998 execution, a divided Minnesota Supreme Court said May 30 in dismissing a putative class action alleging deceptive marketing of "light cigarettes" (Gregory Curtis, et al., individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated v. Altria Group, Inc., et al., No. A10-0215, Minn. Sup.). 

(Opinion available. Document #04-120613-001Z.)

 

Minnesota Statute Section 8.31 authorizes the state's attorney general (AG) to bring a lawsuit under subdivision 3 on behalf of the state, as well as the relief available to a private litigant under subdivision 3a, the majority said.  

"It logically follows that the State AG has the authority to settle and release a private litigant's claims brought under section 8.31, subdivision 3a," the majority said.  "We conclude that the State unambiguously released all of its section 8.31 claims against Philip Morris for 'past conduct.'  The release language as to past conduct is broad and inclusive." 

Release Language 

"Applying the release language to respondents' subdivision 3a consumer protection claims, we conclude that respondents' claims fall within the scope of the release in the Settlement Agreement, and therefore were released," the majority said.  "Accordingly, we conclude that respondents' subdivision 3a consumer protection claims for conduct that occurred after the Settlement Agreement fall within the scope of the released 'future conduct' claims." 

Justice Christopher J. Dietzen wrote the majority opinion, with Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea and Justice G. Barry Anderson concurring.  Justice Alan C. Page dissented.  

"The 'future conduct' clause in the 1998 Settlement Agreement applies only to 'monetary Claims directly or indirectly based on, arising out of or in any way related to, in whole or in part, the use of or exposure to Tobacco Products,'"  Justice Page wrote.  "[Lead Plaintiff Gregory] Curtis's consumer protection claims are predicated on the allegation that Philip Morris's use of the words 'light' and 'lowered tar and nicotine' in its advertising and promotion of its cigarettes was deceptive and false.  

"Such claims do not relate either generally to the use of tobacco or specifically to Curtis's use of tobacco and therefore are not released by the terms of the 1998 Settlement Agreement." 

Justice Paul H. Anderson concurred in the dissent.  

Justices Helen M. Meyer and David R. Stras took no part in the proceeding.  

The decision was a reversal of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which had revived the case in 2010 in a holding that despite the MSA, companies could be sued for false advertising, consumer fraud and deceptive trade practices under the state's consumer protection statutes. 

Counsel  

The plaintiffs are represented by Kay Nord Hunt, Margie R. Bodas and Diane M. Odeen of Lommen, Abdo, Cole, King & Stageberg in Minneapolis, Martha K. Wivell of Sheller in Cook, Minn., and Stephen A. Sheller of Sheller in Philadelphia. 

Philip Morris USA Inc. is represented by George W. Soule and Nathan J. Marcusen of Bowman and Brooke in Minneapolis, Gregory P. Stone and Randall G. Sommer of Munger, Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles and David F. Herr of Maslon, Edelman, Borman & Brand in Minneapolis.   

Amicus curiae the State of Minnesota is represented by Attorney General Lori Swanson, Solicitor General Benjamin Velzen and Assistant Attorney General Alan I. Gilbert in St. Paul. 

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