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CORPORATISM -
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Philip Morris Wins Reversal of $10.1 Bln Damage Award

Posted in the database on Thursday, December 15th, 2005 @ 12:51:09 MST (1112 views)
from Bloomberg.com  

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Altria Group Inc.'s Philip Morris USA doesn't have to pay a $10.1 billion damage award to smokers of ``light'' cigarettes who accused the company of misleading them about health risks, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled.

Shares rose $4.45 to $78.18 or 6 percent at 10:49 a.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading.

The Springfield, Illinois-based court reversed a decision by a lower court judge who said Philip Morris ``intended to deceive consumers'' into believing its Marlboro Lights and Cambridge Lights were safer than regular brands. The court found that Illinois law didn't permit the suit because the U.S. Federal Trade Commission had authorized cigarette makers to characterize their products as ``light'' or ``low tar.''

The decision today removes an obstacle to Altria's plan to break up the company to make the company more valuable. It may doom similar suits in Illinois filed against Reynolds American Inc.'s R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and other cigarette makers. Philip Morris, the world's biggest cigarette maker, called the 2003 verdict ``staggering,'' saying it would bankrupt the company.

``It lifts the burden of litigation fears from the share price,'' said Thomas Russo, a partner at Lancaster, Pennsylvania- based Gardner Russo & Gardner, who manages more than $2 billion, including 3.8 million Altria shares, his largest holding as of Sept. 30.

Tobacco Shares Rise

Shares of Reynolds American Inc., the Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based parent of No. 2 U.S. cigarette maker R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., rose as much as 5.7 percent. Shares of Carolina Group, a tobacco tracking stock of Loews Corp., which owns third- largest Lorillard Tobacco Co. in Greensboro, North Carolina, climbed as much as 7.1 percent.

``This win is very helpful on the litigation scene,'' said David Dreman, who oversees $15 billion at Dreman Value Management in Jersey City, New Jersey, including 14.6 million Altria shares and 3.1 Reynolds American shares as of Sept. 30. ``This is a case that a lot of other states were watching.''

The $10.1 billion verdict, had it been upheld, would have been more than Altria's $9.4 billion in net income last year.

The Illinois high court found that the state Consumer Fraud Act exempts conduct ``specifically authorized'' by any regulatory body of the United States, such as the FTC.

Break-up Plan

``Philip Morris USA is gratified by today's Illinois Supreme Court decision in the Price case,'' company spokeswoman Lisa Gonzalez said in an e-mailed statement. ``The company will have no further comment on today's decision.''

Altria Chief Executive Officer Louis Camilleri, 50, said last month that separating the company's tobacco and food businesses hinged on the company's prevailing in the Illinois case, in a smokers' class action in Florida and in the U.S. Department of Justice's racketeering suit in Washington against cigarette manufacturers. The Florida suit, known as the Engle case, involves an appeal of a $145 billion punitive-damages verdict.

``The timing of a breakup becomes more visible with the Price case going in Altria's favor,'' said Russo. ``Assuming all these cases are resolved, I suspect there will be a spin-off of Kraft in 2006.''

Important Win

Keith Patriquin, an analyst at Loomis Sayles & Co. in Boston, which manages about $70 billion, including 506,000 Altria shares as of Sept. 30, said the Illinois win was significant even though the Engle and U.S. racketeering suits need to be resolved.

``They really wanted to shut this one down because it had gotten so far,'' he said.

The Illinois suit is known as the Price case, after Sharon Price, a Cambridge Lights smoker who was a representative of the smokers at the trial.

Aside from Northfield, Illinois-based Kraft Foods Inc., 86 percent owned by Altria, other company units include Philip Morris International in Lausanne, Switzerland. Philip Morris USA is based in Richmond, Virginia. Camilleri said Altria might be broken up into two or three companies.

Lower profits at Kraft in eight of the past nine quarters have hurt earnings of Altria, which gets two-thirds of its revenue from tobacco. Kraft, the largest U.S. foodmaker with brands including Oreo cookies and Cracker Barrel cheese, reduced its 2005 profit forecast in October.

The Illinois suit was brought on behalf of an estimated 1.1 million smokers who purchased Marlboro Lights or Cambridge Lights in Illinois between 1971, when the company introduced ``light'' or low-tar cigarettes, and 2001.

The smokers sought economic damages from Altria for selling a product that was not as advertised. Unlike the Florida case, no personal injury claims were involved.

The Trial Judge

After a trial in Edwardsville, Illinois, Judge Nicholas Byron, who presided over the light-cigarette case without a jury, ruled in March 2003 that Philip Morris's deceptive marketing violated state consumer protection laws. He awarded $10.1 billion, including $3 billion in punitive damages and $1.8 billion in attorney fees.

Light cigarettes accounted for 85 percent of the U.S. cigarette market in 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available, according to the Federal Trade Commission. That figure is up from about half the market in 1984.

The case is: Price v. Philip Morris Inc., No. 96238, Supreme Court of Illinois.

To contact the reporter on the story:
Bob Van Voris at rvanvoris@bloomberg.net in
New York.



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