SPRINGFIELD – Manufacturers of all kinds expect great economic damage if the Illinois Supreme Court preserves a $10 billion judgment against Philip Morris.
On Jan. 21, their product liability advisory council asked the Justices to overturn judgment that former Madison County judge Nicholas Byron entered for smoker Sharon Price in 2003.
“The Price judgment would no doubt lead to a wave of class action litigation in southern Illinois, with predictable problems for the people of this state,” Stephanie Scharf of Chicago wrote for the council as friend of the court.
Scharf predicted that, “once again private litigants will turn Illinois courts into ground zero for an attempt to affect radical changes in product litigation.”
She classified Byron’s judgment as an outlier, and called it “anachronistic.”
She objected to a $1.77 billion fee that Philip Morris would have to pay St. Louis lawyer Stephen Tillery if the Justices affirm Byron.
“Such windfall transfers of wealth have no apparent benefit to the general public,” she wrote.
She wrote that the U.S. Senate singled out the problem of windfall settlements in 2005, when Congress enacted the Class Action Fairness Act.
Tillery sued Philip Morris in 2000, claiming it deceived smokers into expecting health benefits from light and low tar brands.
At a bench trial, Byron found that Philip Morris had deceived millions of smokers for 30 years.
He awarded the exact amount of damages Tillery sought, plus the fee.
The Supreme Court granted direct appeal, bypassing the Fifth District appellate court in Mount Vernon, and the Justices reversed Byron in 2005.
They found that the Federal Trade Commission authorized light and low tar labels, and they did not address other issues that Philip Morris raised.
Tillery moved to reopen the case in 2011, claiming he found new evidence that the trade commission didn’t authorize light and low tar labels.
Byron’s successor, Circuit Judge Dennis Ruth, denied the motion.
On appeal, Fifth District judges found the evidence so powerful that they decided the Supreme Court would have affirmed Byron if they had seen it.
They reinstated the judgment, without addressing Philip Morris’s arguments that plaintiffs suffered no injury and that Byron shouldn’t have certified a class action.
The Supreme Court granted an appeal, and Philip Morris called on the Justices to review all the issues it raised 10 years ago.
The brief from the product liability council raised even bigger issues.
“If the 2003 judgment is reinstated, product manufacturers can safely bet on a flood of litigation against them in Illinois as a result of lowering the bar for class certification,” Scharf wrote.
She wrote that labels would have to include absurd disclaimers such as, “this brand is no safer than our competitor’s brands and might actually be more dangerous.”
“Companies wishing to do business in Illinois will face immense pressure to write large pretrial settlement checks, after certification of overbroad classes, a practice that has been referred to as judicial blackmail,” she wrote.
“In the face of potentially huge liabilities, some companies could decide that it is no longer worth doing business in the state of Illinois.”
She attached a roster of 105 council members including 3M, Bayer, Boeing, Caterpillar, Chrysler, Deere, Dow, duPont, Emerson Electric, Exxon Mobil, Ford, General Electric, General Motors, Georgia Pacific, Goodyear, Harley-Davidson, Honda, Hyundai, Johnson & Johnson, Mazda, Medtronic, Merck, Microsoft, Peabody, Pfizer, RJ Reynolds, Shell Oil, St. Jude Medical, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo.
Retailers Wal-Mart and Home Depot also belong to the council.