Top New York State court rejects cigarette claim

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York State’s top court on Tuesday rejected a product liability claim against tobacco companies by smokers who said they should have used lower levels of tar and nicotine.

The New York State Court of Appeals, in a 6-1 decision, upheld a lower court ruling that found lawyers for smoker Norma Rose failed to prove that “light” cigarettes had the same impact as regular cigarettes.

“A strong argument can be made that, when the pleasure they give smokers is balanced against the harm they do, regular cigarettes are worse than useless,” according to the decision. “But it is still lawful for people to buy and smoke regular cigarettes, and for the cigarette companies to sell them.

“To hold, as plaintiffs ask, that every sale of regular cigarettes exposes the manufacturer to tort liability would amount to a judicial ban on the product.

“If regular cigarettes are to be banned, that should be done by legislative bodies, not courts,” the decision said.

A jury had awarded $3.42 million in compensatory damages to Rose and her husband Leonard. The amount was divided equally between Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp, now a unit of R.J. Reynolds Inc and Philip Morris USA. Punitive damages of $17.1 million were also assessed against Philip Morris, now part of Philip Morris International Inc..

Rose, who smoked more than a pack of cigarettes a day for more than 40 years, died during the appeal. A jury found that American Tobacco and Philip Morris negligently designed the cigarettes Rose smoked.

The Appellate Division reversed the judgment and granted judgment in favor of the companies. The lawyers for Rose’s estate appealed.

(Reporting by Grant McCool, editing by Leslie Gevirtz)

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