Suits Against Cigarettes Firms

The state Supreme Court breathed new life Thursday into lawsuits by seriously ill ex-smokers, ruling that a former cigarette addict can seek damages from buy cigarettes companies for her cancer despite having failed to sue for earlier smoking cigarettes-related illnesses.

California law authorized suits against cigarettes companies in 1998, after a decade in which the companies enjoyed legal immunity. But many of the suits have been bogged down in federal courts in disputes over whether they were filed in time.

State law requires someone injured by a defective product to sue within two years of the time the victim learned or should have learned of the injury.

The California Supreme Court removed one obstacle to buy cigarettes suits by ruling in 2007 that the two-year deadline started running when former smokers learned that they were ill, and not merely that they were addicted.

But federal judges dismissed other suits in which the plaintiffs did not go to court within two years of suffering any smoking cigarettes-related ailment. One such case involved Nikki Pooshs, 70, who smoked from 1953 to 1987.

She sued Philip Morris and other cheap cigarettes companies in San Francisco in 2004 after being diagnosed with lung cancer, saying the companies had concealed the addictive nature and health hazards of their cigarettes.

A federal judge dismissed the suit, saying Pooshs' two-year clock had started running when she was diagnosed with a noncancerous lung disease in 1989. She also came down with a gum disease a year or two later, and she had known that both illnesses were smoking cigarettes-related, the judge said.

Pooshs appealed to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which then asked the state's high court, the top authority on California law, to interpret the timetables.

On Thursday, the justices ruled unanimously that someone diagnosed with a new disease, not caused by previous illnesses, has two years to sue from the date of the diagnosis. Assuming that Pooshs' lung cancer was not caused by her earlier ailments, the ruling reinstates her lawsuit.

"No good reason appears to require (Pooshs), who years ago suffered a smoking cigarettes-related disease that is not lung cancer, to sue at that time for lung cancer damages based on the speculative possibility that lung cancer might later arise," Justice Joyce Kennard wrote in the court's ruling.

Pooshs now lives in Sacramento. Her lawyers have said that the cancer has spread to her brain and that she is dying.

The ruling "allows plaintiffs who have developed a serious injury to have their day in court," said Lloyd LeRoy, a lawyer for Pooshs.

Philip Morris USA, lead defendant in the case, said the ruling addressed "a narrow technical point" unrelated to the merits of the lawsuit, and would apply only to "a very small fraction of cases filed."