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EDITIONS
Smoking Tuesday, 9 February, 1999, 21:57 GMT
High Court rules against tobacco claimants
20:20 08-02-99 smoker AC
The tobacco firms are being sued for negligence
A High Court judge has ruled that eight lung cancer sufferers cannot proceed with a claim for compensation from two tobacco companies.

The eight were taking a test case on behalf of 36 lung cancer sufferers who are attempting to sue tobacco giants Imperial Tobacco and Gallaher.

Mr Justice Wright ruled against them on the basis that they had left it too late to put in their claim.

Sixteen others did start their action within the normal three year time limit, but their chances of success are now seen as being much reduced.

In his judgement Mr Justice Wright had to consider the general merits of the claim and he said that it was not self-evident that there was a strong case.

He also said a court might find claimants had contributed to their illnesses by continuing to smoke once they realised the risks.

The claimants say the two tobacco companies acted negligently by not reducing the tar content of their cigarettes between 1957 and 1971 when the risks of tobacco first became known.

They say this was a cause of their cancers.

Deadline

Claimants normally have three years to start legal action from the date they are diagnosed.

Thirty-six of the 52 involved failed to do so, but last December they asked Mr Justice Wright to exercise his discretion and allow their claims to go ahead.

Counsel for the patients explained the delay in applying for compensation by saying the individual smokers may not have realised that the companies might have acted negligently.

Imperial Tobacco argued this would have been unfair, as many of the company's senior staff were no longer available to give evidence.

Tobacco companies have faced growing pressure because of legal actions. In the US, a similar case has been going on for several years and could lead to huge compensation, running into billions of dollars.

Confident

Gallaher's head of corporate affairs Ian Birks said: "We were confident that this would be the judgement. We welcome it. The Court has considered eight sample cases to see whether there was any reason why those claims, begun after the time period permitted by law, should continue.

"Mr Justice Wright has declined the request of all of the eight and the consequence, subject to any appeal, is that those claims will almost certainly be dismissed at the next directions hearing."

He added that the claimants' lawyers now had to decide whether to proceed with the other cases which began after the time limit.

"The judgement is of benefit to all parties because it has helped to reduce the number of issues that the Court will need to determine at trial," said Mr Birks.

Legal battle 'will continue'

Campaigners for compensation have promised to continue with their legal battle despite the court setback.

The anti-smoking pressure group ASH has called on more cancer sufferers to join in the legal action.

Clive Bates, director of ASH said: "It is very sad for the 36 people who are not now going to be able to have the issue of negligence heard in court. It was their last chance for justice.

"But it is like a war. They may have lost their front line but there are others who can come forward and take their place and bring this issue into the courts."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Audio
The BBC's Joshua Rozenburg reports on the critical ruling
Video
The BBC's Joshua Rozenberg: Ruling will be a pointer towards the eventual outcome of the case
Audio
The BBC's Joshua Rozenberg on the ruling
See also:

09 Mar 99 | Medical notes
07 Dec 98 | Health
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