C$27 billion suit versus Big Tobacco starts in Montreal

Mon Mar 12, 2012 3:10pm EDT
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(Reuters) - Canada's three biggest tobacco companies, all with multinational parents, face C$27.25 billion ($27.43 billion) in damages and penalties as the largest civil lawsuit in the country's history to go to trial started on Monday.

The companies, Imperial Tobacco Canada, JTI-Macdonald Corp and Rothmans Benson & Hedges, are named in the class-action suit by a group of current and former smokers in the province of Quebec.

At question in the trial in Quebec Superior Court in Montreal is whether the companies adequately warned smokers of the dangers of cigarettes. It is the first time tobacco companies have gone to trial in a civil suit in Canada.

The plaintiffs say they were hoodwinked into buying an addictive product and have since developed a range of smoking-related illnesses, including lung cancer and emphysema.

The tobacco firms say the suits amount to "an opportunistic cash grab" as the risks of smoking have been known for decades.

"Tobacco manufacturers must be held accountable for their actions, and legal proceedings provide a key opportunity to bring about a fundamental change in this industry's business practices," said the Canadian Cancer Society's Melanie Champagne.

More than 10,000 people die each year in Quebec from causes directly linked to smoking. Quebec's annual healthcare spending on tobacco-related ailments tops C$1 billion, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.

The lawsuit is the first of a series of multibillion-dollar suits against Canadian tobacco companies. Provincial governments also plan huge lawsuits in hopes of recovering billions of healthcare dollars spent to treat the victims of tobacco use.

With tens of millions of pages of documents already exchanged, the Quebec trial could go on for years. The tobacco companies are not scheduled to start to present their evidence until February 2013.   Continued...