NEW YORK - Tobacco companies have won a legal round over smokers who contend they were misled about the health effects of light cigarettes.
The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in Manhattan, overturned class-action status yesterday in a lawsuit seeking at least $200 billion on behalf of tens of millions of smokers.
The damages theoretically could go as high as $800 billion.
If that were the case, it could become the largest class action in American history and more than has been spent on the Iraq war, said Theodore M. Grossman, a lawyer for the tobacco companies.
The defendants, including Marlboro maker
Grossman said the ruling has "tremendous significance," in part because there were similar class-action lawsuits pending in various states that make the same assertions.
The lawsuit says tobacco companies promoted light cigarettes as a lower-risk alternative to regular cigarettes, even though their internal documents allegedly showed they knew the risks were about the same.
The class may consist of as many as 60 million people, lawyers say.
Michael Hausfeld, who argued the case for smokers, said the ruling was upsetting but no decision has been made about whether to appeal.
"Not only was a lot of money spent on a product that wasn't what it was represented to be, but a lot of lives were lost and diseases contracted unnecessarily," said Hausfeld.
The case has been in the court for years. The three-judge appellate panel knocked down a 2006 ruling by US District Judge Jack Weinstein in Brooklyn that granted the class-action status. But the lawsuit against cigarette makers had been filed in 2004.
The appeals court did say that some smokers may have relied on misrepresentations by tobacco companies to varying degrees.