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Supreme Court To Hear Cigarette Lawsuit - Son Says Parents Always Had Hope

March 30, 1991

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) _ Rose Cipollone blamed cigarette makers for the disease that killed her, and her lawsuit against them lingers over the industry like a deathbed curse.

It was a 1983 lawsuit filed by Mrs. Cipollone and her husband, Antonio, that led the U.S. Supreme Court to agree to decide how liable cigarette makers are for the health hazards caused by smoking.

Depending on how the high court rules, the tobacco industry could find itself gasping for survival, facing billions of dollars in potential claims.

″My mother was one small Sicilian lady who managed to shake the world,″ said the Cipollones’ 35-year-old son, Thomas, who is carrying on the lawsuit in memory of his parents. ″She went up against these giants with nothing more than a lot of heart and a lot of will.″

The justices will resolve lower court conflicts over a central question: Does a 1965 federal law requiring the Surgeon General’s Warning on cigarette packs shield manufacturers from accusations that they do not warn smokers adequately about health hazards?

That issue and several others were raised when the couple decided in 1983 to take on the formidable $40 billion-a-year tobacco industry, which had never lost a liability case.

″The excitement of the case is always what turned on my parents very much,″ Thomas Cipollone said in a telephone interview from California after the Supreme Court announced last week it would hear the case. ″It was a motivating factor in keeping them alive so long, even through the sickness.″

They filed suit in U.S. District Court here against three cigarette makers, claiming the companies never adequately warned Mrs. Cipollone of the dangers of smoking.

A fan of movie magazines as a girl, Mrs. Cipollone began smoking at age 16, buying three Chesterfields each day on her way to school.

″I thought I would be Joan Crawford or Bette Davis,″ she told lawyers.

She smoked until 1981, when she contracted lung cancer, and she died three years later at 58. Antonio Cipollone kept the suit alive, and when it went to trial, his wife’s words were read to the jurors.

″I was sure that if there was anything that dangerous, that the tobacco people wouldn’t allow it and the government wouldn’t let them,″ she said.

The tobacco companies argued that Mrs. Cipollone had the right and the freedom to decide whether or not to smoke.

Before the trial, the judge ruled that the 1965 label law did not prevent the Cipollones from claiming that the warnings were not adequate. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling and the Supreme Court at that time refused to hear the matter.

After a four-month trial, Liggett Group Inc. - maker of the Chesterfields Mrs. Cipollone smoked before 1965 - was ordered to pay $400,000, the first defeat for the tobacco industry. A jury found Liggett violated advertising promises, breaching a claim its cigarettes were safe.

Liggett appealed, arguing that the trial judge should have allowed it to try to prove that Mrs. Cipollone did not believe advertisements touting safe cigarettes. The appeals court agreed and sent the case back for retrial based on that and other trial errors.

That decision was issued Jan. 5, 1990, one day after Antonio Cipollone entered a hospital. He died of heart disease four days later.

Thomas Cipollone, himself a smoker during high school and for a couple of years afterward, took over the lawsuit.

The family appealed again to the Supreme Court on the labeling issue. On Monday the court decided to hear the case, partly because the New Jersey Supreme Court has issued a separate ruling contradicting the federal courts. A Supreme Court ruling is expected next year.

Tobacco companies contend a Supreme Court victory would substantially immunize cigarette makers from big-money damages and leave little motivation to sue.

Anti-smoking activists said a defeat for tobacco companies could raise cigarette prices by more than $2 a pack, or even plunge the industry into bankruptcy.

The American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 1,100 people will die every day this year from cigarette-related diseases, and that medical care, lost productivity and other costs to society total $65 billion.

Even if the decision is ultimately in favor of the tobacco industry, Thomas said he hopes the case will raise awareness of the dangers of smoking.

″They both knew this case was going to do some good because of what the tobacco companies did, and they wanted them to pay,″ Thomas said. ″But I also think it was a flag from them to other people not to smoke because of what it did to their lives.″

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