UK Tobacco litigation starts again

Friday 04 December 1998

ASH/ Press releases/


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Press advisory4th December 1998
Action on Smoking
and Health

UK tobacco litigation starts again on Monday 7th December in the High Court 10:30 court73

There are now 52 lung cancer victims suing Gallaher and ImperialTobacco in the English High Court. The victims allege that these companies were negligentin failing to reduce tar levels rapidly enough when it first became apparent in the 1950sthat smoking causes lung cancer. The cases will come to full trial in January 2000. Muchof the time between now and the full hearing will be occupied with ‘discovery’ – theexchange of thousands of pages of documents. The next hearing starts on 7th December 1998and concerns the vital argument of ‘limitations’. Though a this is a technical issue, itwill be the first time the substantive arguments in the case are heard in court and manyobservers, especially the City specialists, will assess the strength of the case duringthis hearing.

The 1980 Limitations Act requires plaintiffs to bring actions withinthree years. 36 of the 52 plaintiffs commenced their action more than three years afterthe diagnosis of lung cancer – so technically these plaintiffs could be excluded – and theviability of the case weakened. However, Section 33 of the Act allows the judge toexercise discretion and allow cases to proceed if he believes this would be in theinterests of justice. In making this decision, the judge will consider many factors,including:

  • Length of delay and reasons why the plaintiffs did not sue earlier
  • Unfairness to defendants because of lost evidence
  • Defendants’ role in creating delay
  • Strength of overall case

The last of these is particular interesting at this stage. It will bethe first opportunity to see how the arguments and counter-arguments work and to assessthe strength of the legal teams

Outlook. The hearing is an important milestone in the case.Following an analysis of the cases, HSBC Securities, a City of London investment house,recently downgraded its investment recommendation for Gallaher and Imperial Tobacco,stating:

Our concern is prompted by a sense that investors have become toodismissive of the UK tobacco litigation. During the proceedings in December, it is quitelikely that the quality of the lung cancer victims’ legal team, and the general principlesof their case, will come sharply into focus for the first time. (20 November 1998)

If the case is ultimately successful, many of the 30,000 people that get lung cancereach year as a result of smoking could be eligible to claim damages from the tobaccocompanies. Total damages may run to hundreds of millions each year – a substantialfraction of the profits made by these companies.

Clive Bates, Director of ASH, said: “We think the toabcco companies were negligentand have a serious case to answer. I hope the judge recognises how difficult it has beenfor these lung cancer sufferers to take on the tobacco industry, and that he will not letthe companies off by allowing the case to be derailed by a technicality.”


Contact Clive Bates, Director (020) 7739 5902

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