National tobacco case to be heard in Bangor

Posted Oct. 21, 2009, at 9:07 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine— Attorneys from around the country descended Wednesday on the federal courthouse in Bangor for a conference on a class-action lawsuit against the makers of light cigarettes.

It is the first multidistrict litigation case ever assigned to U.S. District Court in Bangor.

Multidistrict litigation, or MDL, is the label the federal judiciary gives cases filed against the same party or parties in federal courts around the nation. Once cases have been combined, a three-judge panel assigns them to one federal judge.

At least 20 lawsuits from around the country have been combined in Bangor. The MDL has been assigned to U.S. District Judge John Woodcock, who has not handled one since his appointment to the federal bench in 2003. Moreover, the original Maine case that led to the 20-case MDL is once again in the hands of Woodcock, whom the U.S. Supreme Court reversed last year.

In a 5-4 a split won by the court’s liberals, the justices ruled in December that smokers may use state consumer protection laws to sue cigarette makers for the way they promote “light” and “low tar” brands. The Altria Group Inc. argued on behalf of its Philip Morris USA subsidiary that the lawsuits are barred by the federal ciga-rette labeling law, which forbids states from regulating any aspect of cigarette advertising that involves smoking and health.

Tobacco litigation in federal court is not unusual. Cigarette cases regularly are filed in state and federal courts around the country. It is unusual for the first case in the nation against a particular tobacco company to be filed in Maine.

Bangor lawyer Samuel W. Lanham Jr. filed the lawsuit in August 2005 on behalf of Lori A. Spellman of Levant and Stephanie Good and Allain L. Thibodeau, both of Bangor. Each smoked Marlboro Lights for 15 years or more. The plaintiffs are not seeking damages for personal injuries or health problems caused from cigarette smoking.

Instead, the lawsuit alleges that they were hoodwinked into thinking that “light” cigarettes contained less tar and nicotine than full-flavor cigarettes. The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified compensatory, punitive and other damages.

Woodcock granted summary judgment in the cigarette makers’ favor in 2006. The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling the next year and attorneys for the tobacco firm appealed to the nation’s highest court. It was the first case argued during the U.S. Supreme Court’s term last year.

The meeting Wednesday was purely about scheduling — which motions the judge will hear first, when briefs must be filed, how often Woodcock will hold conferences with attorneys, and which attorneys on both sides will act as liaisons from the court to the more than 25 attorneys scattered throughout the country.

The case is not expected to be decided anytime soon.

No hearings in the case will be held until January or February. Once Woodcock rules on whether the facts in a landmark case upheld earlier this year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C., Circuit can be applied to the MDL case, his decision is expected to be appealed to the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. That decision also could go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Attorneys appeared visibly relieved when Woodcock, a Bangor native, said he would conduct monthly conferences via telephone and they would not have to fly to Bangor.

“I’m sure it would be helpful to the Bangor economy to have you all come her once a month, but I don’t think that’s the most efficient use of your clients’ money,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

jharrison@bangordailynews.net

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