SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The Supreme Court is considering the fate of litigation against cellphone makers over safety risks, just as the industry comes under more scrutiny in the wake of a health report from the World Health Organization.
A working group of WHO cancer experts suggested on Tuesday that cellphone use should be classified as "possibly carcinogenic" after reviewing of all the available scientific evidence.
The classification puts mobile phone use in the same broad cancer risk category as lead, chloroform and coffee, and it garnered extensive media coverage. Industry groups immediately sought to play down the announcement, saying it does not mean that cellphones cause cancer.
The report comes as a proposed class action lawsuit against 19 defendants, mostly cellphone manufacturers and telecommunications companies, has landed at the Supreme Court. The defendants -- which include Nokia, AT&T Inc and Samsung Electronics Co Ltd -- are accused of misrepresenting that their cellphones are safe, when they in fact knew of potential dangers.
A lower appeals court dismissed the lawsuit, saying the plaintiffs' claims were preempted by federal law. But on Tuesday, the Supreme Court formally asked the Justice Department to weigh in on whether the high court should hear the plaintiffs' appeal.
Allison Zieve, who represents the plaintiffs, said people often dismiss allegations about the harm of common products as "silly." The WHO report could change that perception, said Zieve, director of Public Citizen Litigation Group, a consumer advocacy organization.
"I hope that it signals to the Justice Department ... that it's a potentially significant case and they should take it seriously," she said.
An AT&T spokesman declined to answer questions about the case and representatives from Nokia and Samsung did not respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit seeks damages and an injunction, including a requirement that the companies provide headsets to customers.
Joanne Suder, a Baltimore-based plaintiff attorney, said she had "hundreds" of cellphone cases on hold pending the Supreme Court's actions in the coming months. Her clients are seeking monetary damages, Suder said.
Paul Freehling, who represents the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, said he does not know of any cases where a court has found sufficient scientific evidence of a link between cellphones and cancer.
In one case, a U.S. appeals court upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit against Motorola in 2003, finding that the plaintiffs could not demonstrate that cellphones caused malignant brain tumors.
"Based on previous assessments of the scientific evidence, the Federal Communications Commission has concluded that 'here's no scientific evidence that proves that wireless phone usage can lead to cancer,'" said CTIA vice president John Walls on Tuesday.
But Suder forecast that, after this week, reports about the dangers of cellphone will only increase.
"I think at this point the genie is finally out of the bottle," she added.
Reporting by Dan Levine; editing by Andre Grenon