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IL Supreme Court: Philip Morris case is over


Springfield, Ill. – The Illinois Supreme Court says years of litigation involving Philip Morris and light cigarettes is over.

The court Wednesday put a halt to a Madison County judge's efforts to revisit his overturned $10 billion judgment against Philip Morris.

Judge Nicholas Byron had asked a higher court to rule whether he has jurisdiction to reopen Stephen Tillery's lawsuit over light cigarettes.

In the 4-2 ruling, the high court offered no explanation for the two-paragraph order that Byron stop asking the state's 5th District Appellate Court whether he has authority to reopen the lawsuit.

"The court's action today is entirely predictable because it quickly and quietly closes the book on a case that a majority of this court, I am sure, would rather forget," Justice Charles Freeman wrote in dissent.

In March 2003, Byron issued a $10.1 billion judgment against Philip Morris USA, saying the company misled customers into believing they were buying a less harmful cigarette.

The Illinois Supreme Court overturned Byron's ruling, saying the Federal Trade Commission allowed companies to characterize or label their cigarettes as "light" and "low tar," so Philip Morris could not be held liable under state law even if such terms could be found false or misleading.

The U.S. Supreme Court last November let that ruling stand, and Byron dismissed the case the next month.

But since then, the attorney in that suit, Stephen Tillery of St. Louis, has argued that his original argument is supported by the U.S. solicitor general in a separate case before the nation's high court. Paul Clement the Bush administration's top Supreme Court lawyer said in the new case that the FTC never authorized or ordered Marlboro Lights to be labeled as "lights" or use the words "lower tar and nicotine."

Tillery's class-action lawsuit, involving 1.1 million people who bought "light" cigarettes in Illinois, claimed Philip Morris a unit of New York-based Altria Group Inc. knew when it introduced such cigarettes in 1971 that they were no healthier than regular cigarettes. But the company hid that information and the fact that light cigarettes actually had a more toxic form of tar, the lawsuit claimed.

Messages left Wednesday at Tillery's office were not immediately returned.

William Ohlemeyer, Philip Morris USA's vice president and associate general counsel, issued a one-sentence statement: "Philip Morris USA believes the Illinois Supreme Court reached the right result."

Former Illinois Gov. James Thompson, a Chicago attorney representing Philip Morris, has argued that the appellate court has no authority to decide whether the case can be reopened. In May, he asked the Illinois Supreme Court to "put a stop once and for all to plaintiffs' futile efforts to resurrect their case."

On Wednesday, Thompson called the high court's ruling appropriate.

"It's obviously meant to put an end to this case, finally," he said. "Their original opinion was right. The law had not changed, and it's appropriate for the Supreme Court to say this is the end."


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