Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Altria v. Good: First Mass Tort Ruling of the Obama Era?

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled in Altria Group v. Good that the federal cigarette labeling statute does not preempt claims that tobacco companies violated state consumer protection laws in their marketing of light cigarettes.  Here's the Supreme Court's opinion.

Today, the New York Times ran an editorial lauding the decision, calling it a "major and well-deserved setback" for the tobacco industry, and suggesting that the ruling may indicate a shift away from the Court's pro-defendant rulings on civil litigation issues:

It was a welcome departure for a court that has been far too deferential to business. We hope it signals that the justices are moving toward a more balanced approach to business cases.

The editorial noted that until this case, the Supreme Court's recent rulings "have made it harder for ordinary Americans to hold corporate wrongdoers accountable."  The interesting thing was how the editorial then linked the decision to "troubled economic times," the "election returns," and the "national mood":

In these troubled economic times, as the nation is still trying to come to terms with the enormous damage done by the deregulation of the mortgage industry, the national mood is turning strongly toward greater regulation. It has often been observed that the Supreme Court has a tendency to follow the election returns, and it may have done so here. With this decision, the court might be indicating a greater appreciation that when companies do wrong, there needs to be a legal means of holding them accountable.

It remains to be seen what the Supreme Court will do in Wyeth v. Levine and other cases on preemption, punitive damages, and other key issues facing mass tort defendants and plaintiffs.  As far as the White House is concerned, although Barack Obama clearly is not a tort reformer in the mold of George Bush, he has avoided being closely identified with trial lawyer interests and made a point during the campaign of emphasizing that he voted for CAFA in the Senate.  But it is undeniable that the "national mood" has shifted, and it will be interesting to see whether this latest tobacco ruling heralds a Supreme Court shift in the same direction.  And even more interesting to see what happens to such rulings if President Obama gets to name a new Justice or two.

For other commentary on the Court's decision, see Pharmalot, Point of Law, WSJ Law Blog, Drug & Device Law Blog, and Overlawyered.



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