Quebec, Canada: $15.5-billion ruling against three tobacco companies

The Quebec Superior Court awarded $15.5 billion (US$ 1.5 billion) in a landmark class action suit against three big tobacco companies. Following a 17 year lawsuit and 3 years after the beginning of the trial, Quebec Superior Court Justice Brian Riordan’s 276 page decision was published on 27 May 2015.

The class action suit unites more than one million Quebec smokers from two groups: those who were diagnosed with lung cancer or other smoking-related diseases (Blais case) and those who are addicted to nicotine and unable to stop (Letourneau case). Distinct cases for the two groups, both started in 1998, were united in 2005. Three big tobacco companies – Imperial Tobacco, Rothman, Benson & Hedges and JTI Macdonald – are accused of deceiving public health authorities and the public about the health risks of smoking in the period from 1950 to 1998.

Judge Riordan awarded a total amount of $15.5 in compensation to the victims, with Imperial Tobacco carrying the biggest share ($10.5 billion), partly due to “bad-faith efforts to block court discovery of research reports”.

The court stated that the tobacco companies had been well aware of the risks of tobacco use and the fact that the public had not been sufficiently warned. It denounced the companies’ actions in a very sharp tone: “Over the nearly fifty years of the Class Period, and in the seventeen years since, the Companies earned billions of dollars at the expense of the lungs, the throats and the general well-being of their customers. If the Companies are allowed to walk away unscathed now, what would be the message to other industries that today or tomorrow find themselves in a similar moral conflict?”

All three companies have expressed their intention to appeal the court’s decision, deferring the payments to the victims.

The tobacco industry is currently facing lawsuits in various Canadian provinces. In a presentation at the WCTOH on 17 March 2015, André Lespérance, one of the leading lawyers in the present case, acknowledged that the legal circumstances in Quebec did facilitate the completion of the 17-year trial. However, he carefully explained how those circumstances could be emulated elsewhere. The presentation is available below.

The decision has been welcomed in other states. For instance in Australia, which has been involved in lawsuits against the tobacco industry before, various health organizations like the Cancer Council and the Australian Heart Foundation expressed their content.

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