The California Supremes today hear an important tobacco case, referred from the 9th Circuit. The issue is whether smokers may wait until they are sick to sue, even if years earlier they knew or should have known that tobacco had addicted them and was unsafe.
Basic legal rules would take the former route, and even the 9th Circuit had so held, in Soliman v. Philip Morris Inc., 311 F.3d 966, (2002) ruling that the statute of limitations "began to run not when [the plaintiff] was first diagnosed with injuries stemming from his tobacco use, but 'when he should have known of any significant injury from [the companies'] wrongful conduct.'" The court said that included when smokers realized they were addicted.
Since then, however, two state appellate court cases -- 2004's Whiteley v. Philip Morris Inc., 117 Cal.App.4th 635, and 2005's Boeken v. Philip Morris Inc., 127 Cal.App.4th 1640 -- have held that a manufacturer's fraudulent statements might be more important than a smoker's awareness under California law. A common-knowledge defense to fraud claims, the rulings held, raises a question of fact for a jury to decide. Even accepting that the tobacco companies insisted their product was safe (the actual evidence is much more ambiguous), every pack sold had a warning directly to the contrary.
The case had reached the 9th Circuit after a Los Angeles federal dictrict court dismissed Grisham's case as being time barred.
This case will decide a very important question in our largest state -- can one 'buy a lawsuit' if a product seller makes a claim you know or should know is false?