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July 26, 2004

School Researchers File Friends-of-the-Court Brief in Landmark Tobacco Case

Throughout his career, Stephen Teret, JD, MPH, has used the law to further the public's health. He has shown that litigation is a powerful way to convince corporations not to  make products harmful to the public. His latest target: Big Tobacco.

In June, Teret and his colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health attracted the support of top-tier medical and public health organizations for their friends-of-the-court (amici curiae) brief in the aftermath of a landmark case called Engle v. Liggett. The jury in Engle had decided that the five biggest tobacco companies should pay punitive damages of $145 billion—the largest jury award in the history of American jurisprudence—to Florida smokers made sick by their products.

The amici brief became necessary when the tobacco companies appealed the Engle verdict to the intermediate appellate court that had originally created the class of smokers but that then reversed itself and ruled the smokers could not sue as a group. That decision is now on appeal before the Florida Supreme Court.

Teret, a professor of Health Policy and Management at the School, says the most interesting part of writing the brief for him has been trying to build an analogy between class action lawsuits and the practice of public health.

“It's long been established,” he says, “that class action suits are a useful administrative tool for bundling together large numbers of individual lawsuits, any one of which  might be too small to try in court. But I believe class actions are much more than that.”

He argues in the brief that class actions and public health are both much more than the sum of their parts. “Public health of course improves the health of millions of individuals,” he says. “But because it also spawns national health policy and prevention strategies, public health is much more than a huge aggregation of individuals’ medical  cases. Similarly, the class action is more than a bringing together of individual lawsuits—it can craft remedies that benefit all society by forcing  powerful corporations to think twice before doing harm.”

Teret and his team also want the Florida Supreme Court to keep the huge wealth of the tobacco companies in mind. He points out that even the 1998 multistate settlement agreement (MSA), which forced the cigarette companies to pay the settling states more than $200 billion over 25 years, hasn't seriously inconvenienced the industry. “The tobacco companies continue to engage in business as usual, producing hundreds of billions of cigarettes each year,” he says.

Another aspect of the amici project has particularly gratified Teret: He was able to convince a diverse group of seven powerful public health and medical organizations—including the American Public Health Association, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association—to agree broadly on a philosophy of advocacy and class action suits, in spite of their quite divergent philosophies about litigation.

Oral arguments in the tobacco industry's appeal of Engle will be made November 3, and the Florida Supreme Court will announce its decision months after that. The ramifications for the entire future of the tobacco industry are such that Teret won't be surprised if the case goes on to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I think it's a real privilege for the School to be able to participate in a case having such enormous public health implications,” he says, “and to do so by representing a national group of premier public health and medical organizations.”  —Rod Graham