Judge awards $15 billion to Quebec smokers: anti-tobacco lobby group

MONTREAL — A judge has awarded more than $15 billion to Quebec smokers in a landmark case that pitted them against three Canadian cigarette giants, an anti-tobacco lobby group said Monday. 

Superior Court Justice Brian Riordan’s 276-page decision was made public late Monday following years of testimony and another six months of deliberations.

The judgment calls on the three companies to issue initial compensation of more than $1 billion in the next 60 days, regardless of whether they elect to appeal.

The Quebec case marked the first time tobacco companies had gone to trial in a civil suit in this country and involved two separate groups of plaintiffs: some who became seriously ill from smoking and others who said they couldn’t quit.

More than one million Quebecers were represented and argued the companies were liable because they knew they were putting out a harmful product and hid the health effects of tobacco.

The $17.8-billion lawsuit was believed to be the biggest class-action ever seen in Canada.

“Today marks an important day for the victims of tobacco who have waited almost 17 years for this moment,” Mario Bujold, executive director of the Quebec Council on Tobacco and Health, said in a statement.

Two of the big tobacco firms — JTI-Macdonald and Imperial Tobacco — reacted immediately to Riordan’s ruling and said they’ll appeal the decision. The third is Rothmans, Benson & Hedges.

The industry argued people knew about the risks of smoking and that the products were sold legally and with federal government approval and strict regulation.

JTI-Macdonald said Canadians have been well aware of the health risks since the 1950s and health warnings have been on packages for more than 40 years.

“JTI-Macdonald Corp. fundamentally disagrees with today’s judgment and intends to file an appeal,” it said in a statement. “The company strongly believes that the evidence presented at trial does not justify the Court’s conclusions.”

Since the 1950s, Canadians have had a very high awareness of the health risks of smoking, the company noted. That awareness has been reinforced by the health warnings printed on every legal cigarette package for more than 40 years.

Imperial Tobacco added its disapproval Monday.

“We believe there are strong grounds for appeal and we will continue to defend our rights as a legal company,” said Tamara Gitto, vice-president law and general counsel for Imperial.

The trial stemmed from two cases that were originally filed in 1998 before being certified and consolidated in 2005. It began sitting in 2012.

Cecilia Letourneau filed on behalf of the province’s smokers who were addicted to nicotine and remained addicted or who died without quitting.

The other was filed by the late Jean-Yves Blais and sought compensatory and punitive damages for smokers who’d suffered from cancer in their lungs, larynx or throat, or emphysema.

The council says some 918,218 Quebecers qualified under Letorneau’s action while 99,957 qualified under Blais.

The case heard from 78 witnesses over 234 days in a giant Montreal courtroom as well as several weeks of final arguments.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press