SEATTLE - July 23, 1998 - Washington Attorney General Chris Gregoire said today King County Superior Court Judge George Finkle issued a series of rulings which enhance the state's lawsuit against tobacco companies.
The rulings were made on a series of motions for summary judgment filed by tobacco companies and the state in the case, which is scheduled to go to trial on September 14. Washington filed suit against the companies in June 1996, alleging the companies preyed on children, conspired to keep safer cigarettes off the market, concealed information that nicotine is addictive and tobacco use is deadly, and manipulated nicotine levels to keep smokers hooked.
“These motions were the last best hope for tobacco companies to derail the state's case and they failed,” Gregoire said. “The attorneys for tobacco companies have been saying how weak the state's case is, but all of our major claims survived their best attacks.”
She said the industry brought 12 separate motions to gut or throw out the state's case and lost on all but one less significant motion.
According to Gregoire, “tobacco companies have tried to deceive the public about our case just like they have done for years about the dangers of tobacco products. The real truth is that the state has an excellent case and these rulings only enhance our ability to prove tobacco companies have violated our laws, preyed on our children and lied to consumers.”
Gregoire said the motions before Finkle covered a wide range of issues. In one of the most important rulings, Finkle not only refused a request by tobacco companies to throw out the state's claims of anti-trust violations, he also affirmed that the state is entitled to seek recovery of Medicaid costs from illnesses caused by tobacco products.
“Judge Finkle gave a clear ruling the state can proceed with its anti-trust case and that we can claim Medicaid costs,” Gregoire said. “This is the second time tobacco companies have tried and failed to have our anti-trust case thrown out.”
The court also rejected attempts by the tobacco industry to throw out a state conspiracy claim against the industry. “The state's allegations of a conspiracy to target minors, misrepresent material facts, restrain trade, and/or use fraud, misrepresentation and deception to increase sales are not deficient as a matter of law,” Finkle said.
Also rejected by the court was a motion by the tobacco industry that the state claims should be thrown out based on the statute of limitations. The judge ruled that the evidence supports the proposition that tobacco companies “fraudulently concealed the key facts underlying each of the state's surviving claims.”
Tobacco attorneys also tried unsuccessfully to have the state case thrown out based on a preemption in the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act.
Tobacco attorneys have argued that Washington's case should be rejected because the state has known for years about the dangers of tobacco and didn't do enough to curb smoking. In response, the state has pointed out that the industry has engaged in multi-million dollar lobbying campaigns for years to successfully kill numerous bills aimed at reducing smoking. “Judge Finkle said the state can proceed with its claims that tobacco companies defrauded and misled legislators,” Gregoire said.
Tobacco attorneys have withdrawn, and will not be permitted to assert their claim that there is a benefit to the state by the premature death of smokers, Gregoire said.
The state prevailed in large part on its motion to open dozens of secret industry documents for trial. Earlier this year Finkle issued similar orders saying a review of secret industry documents indicates there is prima facie evidence that the industry engaged in a conspiracy to lie about the health effects of tobacco products.
According to Gregoire, the state lost, in part, only one of its own motions. The judge agreed to allow tobacco companies to argue to the jury that they should get an offset for taxes paid to the state over the years.
The only motion lost by the state was one in which Finkle ruled the state cannot seek restitution on behalf of individual consumers under the state's Consumer Protection Act. The state, however, still can seek penalties and injunctive relief for consumer protection violations.
Gregoire said the rulings give more momentum to the state's legal team as it prepares for trial. “We will be ready to go to trial on September 14,” she said. At the same time, she added that she still is engaged in settlement discussions with corporate attorneys. “If we can work out an offer that meets our litigation goals, provides key injunctive relief to protect public health and recovers money for the harm caused by tobacco, I will consider accepting it,” she said.