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Associated Press, Published May 30 2012

Supreme Court ruling ends Marlboro Lights lawsuit

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Supreme Court dismissed a class-action lawsuit against the maker of Marlboro Lights on Wednesday, ruling that the state's 1998 settlement with the tobacco industry bars the case from going forward.

The 3-2 decision reversed a Minnesota Appeals Court ruling that found the case against Philip Morris could proceed.

The lawsuit included people who bought Marlboro Lights in Minnesota for their personal use from 1972 through November 2004. It alleged the maker of Marlboro Lights used deceptive trade practices and false advertising when it marketed its cigarettes as "light."

In its decision, the Supreme Court said Minnesota's $6.1 billion settlement with the tobacco industry in 1998 released Philip Morris from all claims the state made or could have made about the company's past conduct. The agreement also released Philip Morris from "future conduct" claims that directly or indirectly arise from the use of or exposure to tobacco products.

The state alleged Philip Morris violated consumer protection statutes by making fraudulent, misleading and deceptive statements about the health impact of its cigarettes. The state also claimed tobacco companies knew smokers thought lower tar cigarettes were safer, but the cigarettes actually had the same risk.

Murray Garnick, associate general counsel for Altria Group Inc., the parent company of Philip Morris, said in a statement that the case was properly dismissed.

"The Minnesota Supreme Court now joins with 14 courts in 15 lights cases which have rejected these claims on a variety of legal and factual grounds," he said.

The 2001 lawsuit was originally filed by Gregory Curtis and expanded into a class-action case to include others who purchased Marlboro Lights.

Writing for the majority, Justice Christopher Dietzen said that 2001 lawsuit had claims similar to the state's case in that it alleged Philip Morris's use of the word "light" was deceptive. Therefore, the 1998 settlement "expressly released and barred respondents' consumer protection claims ... and is binding on respondents," Dietzen wrote.

However, two dissenting justices said Minnesota law allows injured persons to file lawsuits to recover damages. Justice Alan Page wrote that under a deceptive practices claim, plaintiffs need not prove they purchased a product, much less used it. Instead, he said, the claim is based on whether the statements are false — so it wouldn't be barred by the settlement's "future conduct" clause.

Kay Nord Hunt, an attorney for the plaintiffs, agreed with the dissent. She said her interpretation of the settlement does not apply to the class of people she represents.

"It was a very close question," Hunt said. She added her clients could petition for a rehearing, "but obviously the Supreme Court has thought about it and has reached the result they did."

She said the decision also effectively signals the end for two other Minnesota cases against tobacco companies. Those cases were on hold pending this decision.

In 2009, Congress passed a law banning the marketing of tobacco products with words such as "light" or "low-tar." This year, Philip Morris changed the name of Marlboro Lights to Marlboro Gold Pack.

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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.