MONTREAL A judge has ordered three tobacco companies to pay more than $15 billion in damages to Quebec smokers in what is described as the largest monetary award in Canadian legal history.
Quebec Superior Court Justice Brian Riordan found Imperial Tobacco Canada,JTI-Macdonald Corp., and Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc. liable for the disease and addiction suffered by more than onemillion Quebecers over a nearly 50-year period.
By choosing not to inform either the public health authorities or the public directly of what they knew, the Companies chose profits over the health of their customers, Riordan wrote.
The three companies immediately announced their intention to appeal the decision, saying the class-action award fails to take into account smokers responsibility for their health problems.
If the Companies are allowed to walk away unscathed now, what would be the message to other industries
Todays judgment ignores the reality that both adult consumers and governments have known about the risks associated with smoking for decades, and seeks to relieve adult consumers of any responsibility for their actions, said Tamara Gitto, general counsel with Imperial Tobacco Canada. We believe there are strong grounds for appeal and we will continue to defend our rights as a legal company.
JTI-Macdonald issued a brief statement saying it fundamentally disagrees with Riordans findings. Since the 1950s, Canadians have had a very high awareness of the health risks of smoking, the statement said. That awareness has been reinforced by the health warnings printed on every legal cigarette package for more than 40 years.
Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc. spokeswoman Anne Edwards said not a single affected smoker, in nearly three years of trial, testified. Not one showed up to say that he or she was unaware of the risks of smoking, she said.
But the judge concluded the tobacco companies profits were tainted, and their behaviour must be denounced with a hefty award of punitive damages. Over the nearly 50 years of the (class-action period), and in the 17 years since, the companies earned billions of dollars at the expense of the lungs, the throats and the general well-being of their customers, he wrote.
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?
Mario Bujold, general director the Conseil qubcois sur le tabac et la sant, a plaintiff in the class action, called the decision a great day for the victims of tobacco. He noted that the case began 17 years ago when two smokers Ccilia Ltourneau and Jean-Yves Blais began lawsuits that were eventually joined for a single trial. The trial began in March 2012 and took up 253 days of hearings. Blais died of lung cancer in 2012 at age 68. At a news conference Monday, his widow Lise Blais held his photo and urged people to quit smoking. Your healthy is completely lost, she said.
The Conseil said the moral and punitive damages, together with interest, total $15.6 billion and make it the largest monetary sentence in the history of Canada.
The Blais class action represented nearly 100,000 smokers and ex-smokers who had developed lung cancer, throat cancer or emphysema. The Ltourneau case was on behalf of 918,000 addicted smokers.
Both class actions were successful, but only those who developed disease will geta financial award. Those with cancer each will receive either $80,000 or $100,000, depending on when they started smoking. Those with emphysema will receive $24,000 or $30,000. Interest will be added to the awards.
To be eligible, smokers must have smoked the equivalent of a pack a day for 12 years prior to 1998 or a total of at least 87,600 cigarettes.
In the Ltourneau file, the judge ruled that the number of plaintiffs was too large to distribute the$131 million it was awarded. Itwould have amounted to $130 per member of the class action.
The judge found greatest fault with Imperial Tobacco, ordering it to pay $10.5 billion. Riordan called Imperial Tobacco the industry leader on many fronts, including that of hiding the truth from and misleading the public.
Rothmans, Benson & Hedges is ordered to pay $3.1 billion and JTI-Macdonald $2 billion.
National Post with files from Canadian Press