Quebec’s top court rejects appeal of landmark $15B tobacco ruling

Quebec’s Court of Appeal has upheld a Quebec Superior Court ruling in two class-action lawsuits against tobacco companies awarding billions of dollars in damages to 100,000 people.

In the 422-page ruling, the court said that the Superior Court’s decision was correct, except for some small technicalities.

The adjustment in damages amounts to about $2 million of the approximate $15 billion the companies were ordered to pay, the prosecution said Friday.

“It’s excellent news for the victims that have been waiting for this day for a long time,” said Philippe Trudel, one of the lawyers representing the smokers. 

“We are calling this a total victory on all fronts.”

The prosecution estimates the damages the companies will eventually pay out to the smokers will amount to over $17 billion. Interest on the damages continues to accrue as the case moves through the court system.

In a statement Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc. confirmed it will seek leave to appeal the ruling with the Supreme Court of Canada.

A lawyer representing Imperial Tobacco Canada said the company will review the ruling before considering its next steps, which may include an appeal to the Supreme Court.

JTI-Macdonald Corp. is also considering taking the case to the Supreme Court.

“The government has closely regulated every facet of the tobacco business for decades,” the company said in a statement.

“JTI-Macdonald Corp. complies with all Canadian and Quebec laws and regulations and follows a strict code of conduct in the way it does business.”

Lise Blais, widow of class representative Jean-Yves Blais, said her husband would have been happy to hear of Friday’s ruling.

Watch Lise Blais speak about the appeal court decision:

Lise Blais, widow of class representative Jean-Yves Blais, on landmark tobacco case 0:51

Plaintiffs could see up to $100K

In 2015, a Quebec Superior Court justice ruled in favour of two groups representing Quebec smokers, which argued the companies didn’t warn their customers about the dangers of smoking.

Imperial Tobacco, Rothmans Benson & Hedges and JTI-Macdonald were ordered to pay for punitive and moral damages. The companies appealed the decision in 2016.

“It’s a lot of money, but when you look at the number of people concerned in that class action, 100,000 people, it’s not that much,” said Mario Bujold, strategic adviser for the Quebec Council of Tobacco and Health.

If the judgment is upheld through any further appeals, plaintiffs might expect to see $24,000 to $100,000, depending on the illnesses they contracted, Bujold told CBC Montreal’s Daybreak.

“It’s not that much for people who have lost their quality of lives or who died prematurely.”

Lawsuits filed in 1998

The two lawsuits were first filed separately in 1998 and were heard together in 2012.

One suit, known as the Blais file, involves individuals who became seriously ill from smoking. The other, the Létourneau file, was launched by a group whose members say they are unable to quit smoking.

Some 76 witnesses testified over 251 days of hearings. Nearly 43,000 documents were deposited as evidence, including internal tobacco company documents that showed smokers didn’t know or understand the risks associated with cigarettes.

In June 2015, Superior Court Justice Brian Riordan wrote in his 276-page ruling that the tobacco companies chose profits over the health of their customers.

The case was believed to be the biggest class action in Canada’s history.

In his judgment, Riordan concluded that the tobacco industry has known since the 1950s that cigarettes cause lung cancer.

JTI-Macdonald issued a statement minutes later, saying it “strongly believes that the evidence presented at trial does not justify the court’s conclusions.”

“Since the 1950s, Canadians have had a very high awareness of the health risks of smoking. That awareness has been reinforced by the health warnings printed on every legal cigarette package for more than 40 years.”

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