Philip Morris decision in Supreme Court's lap

Ann Knef Sep. 29, 2005, 2:26am

Judge Nicholas Byron

Stephen Tillery

One of the most anticipated decisions to come from the Illinois Supreme Court is expected soon.

At issue is whether a landmark $10.1 billion judgment against Philip Morris USA that originated in Madison County Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron's courtroom in 2003, stands or not. Byron's bench verdict supported smokers' claims that they were duped into believing "light" cigarettes were safer than regular ones.

While legal experts are poised to react after the high court issues its decision, possibly this month, many are reluctant to predict an outcome.

Some look to the court's angry reversal of Avery v. State Farm in August as a bellwhether moment.

Chicago attorneys Steven Pflaum and Michael Pope of McDermott, Will & Emery co-authored "Implications of Avery v. State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Co." and concluded:

"It also may be a harbinger of the court’s forthcoming decision in the downstate class action that resulted in a $10.1 billion judgment against Philip Morris in Price v. Philip Morris."

It has been nearly a year since the dramatic staging of oral arguments unfolded before the court.

In November, former three-term Illinois Governor James R. Thompson, for the defense, argued that the lower court's "grave" decision should be reversed.

"Opening the door to this kind of speculative damage that is untethered to any kind of market reality would turn the world of damages in this state on its head and leave no manufacturer safe," Thompson argued.

Plaintiff's attorney Stephen Tillery of Korein Tillery in St. Louis, who stands to earn $1.7 billion in legal fees if the verdict stands, was in the courtroom.

But he let others do his bidding. Those delivering plaintiffs arguments included Chicago attorney Joseph Power, Jr.

Power's inclusion on the case ostensibly knocked Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Thomas, a conservative Republican, off the bench.

Thomas, figured to be the most pro-business Justice on the bench, until the election of southern Illinoisan Lloyd Karmeier, recused himself because Power represents him in another matter.

Last year's election of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Karmeier, a Republican from the 5th District, figures to regain a pro-business voice in the vote.

For the verdict to be thrown out, at least four justices would have to favor overturning Judge Byron's decision.

Power told the court that Philip Morris' conduct was "reprehensible" because it deliberately hid documents from the American public regarding the dangers of light cigarettes "while they hooked new smokers including our children."

"Year in and year out 440,000 people die from cigarette smoking," Power said. "That is more Americans, more deaths per year from cigarette smoking than all American soldiers killed in World War II."

The Supreme Court decision is expected to have financial consequences for tobacco investors.

As entered in the Schaeffer's Daily Market Blog on Sept. 8:

"At stake is something like $10 billion right now, but even more important are the longer-term consequences, which result from this precedent-setting case."

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