This section includes a timeline of events and presents additional historical artifacts, such as examples of tobacco advertising.
Legal basis of the lawsuits against the cigarette companies
The plaintiffs’ law suits alleged lying deliberately in advertising to sell more cigarettes, breach of warranty, negligence and failure to warn.
Three Waves of Lawsuits
Litigation against the tobacco industry came in three “waves”.
- The first wave of consisted of just eight cases over the period of 1954-1970. Defendants — i.e., the tobacco companies — eventually prevailed in all eight cases.
- 172 cases were filed between 1970 and 1985 but no cases were tried.
The second wave of litigation spanned the years 1984-1994.
- The third wave swells from 1995 to the present.
U.S. Surgeon General’s Reports
U.S. Surgeon General LeRoy Burney issued reports in 1957 and 1959, suggesting a link between smoking and cancer. But it was the famous 1964 report from Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee that formally affirmed that “cigarette smoking is causally related to lung cancer in men.”
1980 Tobacco Institute memo regarding National Institute on Drug Abuse (N.I.D.A.) findings
In 1980 the tobacco industry was greatly concerned that its primary tactic against claimants in court, arguing that the plaintiff was free to smoke or not to smoke and chose to smoke, was in great peril due to the truly addictive qualities of nicotine, as the Shook Hardy (law firm) memo demonstrates:
1980 – 1982 Asbestos Third Party Litigation
Between 1980 and 1982, 33 were lawsuits were filed by asbestos companies that blamed lung disease on cigarette smoking and not on asbestos exposure. By the end of 1982, these cases had been dismissed, and the cigarette industry was spared any finding of liability.
In the mid-1980s, however, new lawsuits were filed and things began to change.
Still, in 1985, industry lawyers Jones Day tried to “…keep the focus of the trial on personal choice.”
1987 California Napkin Deal
On the last night of the legislative session, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown brokered the Napkin Deal on medical malpractice insurance and other issues.
The terms of the bill were literally written on a napkin at Fat Frank’s, a politician’s bar near the State Capitol in Sacramento. The Napkin Deal gave law suit immunity to the tobacco industry and took effect in 1988.
It wasn’t until 1998 that the legislature, in response to revelations on cigarette design and nicotine manipulation, rescinded the Napkin Deal and opened the door to personal injury litigation against the cigarette industry. The first trial in California, Henley v Philip Morris, took place in 1999.
1988 – “Personal Responsibility” Meets General Patton
While a Philip Morris attorney’s memo illustrates the still-strong “freedom of choice” defense, a complementary strategy arose: make cases burdensome to pursue. As another defense lawyer put it: “To paraphrase General Patton, the way we won these cases was not by spending all of Reynolds’ money, but by making that other son of a bitch spend all his.”
1993 – A look inside the industry
After five years coding confidential tobacco documents for the law firm of Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs paralegal, Merrell Williams, photocopied scores of them. Copies of the documents were sent to the New York Times and to the University of California, where they were posted on-line.
In July, 1995 the Journal of the American Medical Association devoted an issue to an expose of the Brown & Williamson documents. These documents, and the others that have been produced pursuant to the Master Settlement Agreement in 1998, are the key evidence that permit the plaintiffs to successfully prosecute future personal injury law suits against the tobacco industry defendants.
1994 – Waxman Congressional Hearings
The first Congressional hearing that included executives from each of the major cigarette companies. Questioning focused on manipulation of nicotine and target of youth. When asked, the CEOs all stated that nicotine and cigarettes were not addictive – fully six years after the 1988 Surgeon General’s Report indicted nicotine as addictive.
1994 – State Reimbursement Cases
In the early-to-mid-1990s, more than 40 states commenced litigation against the tobacco industry, seeking monetary, equitable, and injunctive relief under various consumer-protection and antitrust laws.
Mississippi, Florida, Texas and Minnesota were the first states to sue the tobacco companies to secure reimbursement for health care costs associated with smoking. Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore and plaintiff lawyer Ron Motley spearheaded the nationwide effort to recover medical costs borne by the States treating cigarette related injuries. The four states settled with the tobacco industry defendants between 1997 and 1998.
1997 – “Privileged” Liggett & Myers Documents Released
Liggett broke ranks with the other cigarette companies, settled cases, and produced many previously confidential documents to Republican Congressman Thomas Bliley of Virginia. The evidence was posted on-line for the general public to view.
1999 – Tobacco document websites launch
Under the terms of the M.S.A. the tobacco manufacturers were ordered to post on the internet all documents produced in the litigation with the many States.
The search engines for each of the company sites were non-standardized and difficult to use. To simplify document research third party groups initiated their own websites which provided access to all the company websites through one interface.
1999: The Minnesota Tobacco Documents Depository
1999: Tobacco Documents Online
2002: The Legacy Tobacco Documents Library was sponsored by the University of California Medical School in San Francisco