It has taken 13 years, but the first class-action trial against Canada’s tobacco titans will finally get under way Monday with some two million Quebecers claiming an unprecedented $27 billion in damages they suffered after taking up smoking. It is considered the biggest lawsuit ever to make it to trial in Canada. An army of lawyers and experts, with an arsenal of millions of pages of documents – including internal top-secret industry papers – will settle into a room in Quebec Superior Court in a case in which the plaintiffs’ evidence alone is expected to take a year to present.
Defendants JTI-Macdonald Corp., Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd. and Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc. – Canada’s three largest tobacco companies – are to present their evidence beginning next February. All three declined to be interviewed for this article.
Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst for the Canadian Cancer Society, says the trial is an opportunity for the truth to come out.
“It’s a chance to find out what the industry knew, when they knew it and how they used the information,” he said.
“The allegations are serious in terms of advertising to kids, advertising to women, misleading advertising, including for so-called light and mild cigarettes, denying the health effects . . . concealing their own research and concealing internal documents.”
The federal government has been named as a defendant in warranty in the suit, meaning that if the tobacco companies lose, they will seek to recover damages from Ottawa.
The federal government is denying any liability. In its statement of defence, it says, among other things, it did not endorse the marketing concepts of light and mild cigarettes.
The suit is a combination of two requests filed in 1998 involving people addicted to tobacco and people who have lung, larynx or throat cancer, or those with emphysema.
The court decided that because both actions were against the same tobacco companies for similar issues, both would be dealt with at one trial, although each would have a separate judgment.
The suit was approved in 2005, followed by numerous pre-trial procedures that resulted in more than 50 judgments from Quebec Superior Court. Ten of those went to the Court of Appeal.
The tobacco companies have sought and won several postponements to the trial.
One part of the suit, whose representative plaintiff is Cecilia Letourneau, includes about 1.78 million Quebecers who were addicted to tobacco.
Each is asking for $10,000 in damages for a total of $17.8 billion.
The other group, represented by Jean-Yves Blais and the Quebec Council on Tobacco and Health, involves more than 90,000 Quebecers, each seeking $105,000 for a total of $9.45 billion.
For those plaintiffs who have died since 1998, their legal heirs are eligible for damages.