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Smoking Friday, 26 February, 1999, 22:17 GMT
Cancer sufferers abandon tobacco case
Fifty-three lung cancer patients attempted to sue the tobacco firms
A group of lung cancer sufferers have decided to abandon their High Court damages action against leading tobacco companies.

Their decision effectively brings to an end any chance that tobacco companies can be sued by former smokers who have developed cancer, according to the BBC's legal expert Joshua Rozenberg.

Anti-smoking campaigners blame a conservative judicial system for the outcome.

The High Court was told on Friday that 46 of the 53 cancer sufferers who had taken out the case against tobacco companies Imperial and Gallaher had decided to abandon their action.

The remaining seven have to decide what action they will take before 16 April, but there is a high chance judge Mr Justice Wright will dismiss the case anyway.

Earlier this month, he ruled that eight of the 53 could not proceed with their claims because it was not brought within the three-year time limit required by law.

And he said the other claimants' prospects of success were "by no means self evident".

On the basis of this decision, the 53 consulted with their lawyers and 46 decided not to pursue the case.

Five of the seven remaining people had not taken out their case within the three-year limit, according to Gallaher.

Imperial and Gallaher supply nearly 80% of the cigarettes sold in the UK.

The 53 had alleged that they failed to reduce tar levels in cigarettes between the 1950s and 1970s when it was clear that this could cause health problems.

They say that smoking caused their lung cancer.

Their solicitors - Leigh Day and Co and Irwin Mitchell - had taken on the case on a "no win, no fee" basis and have decided to drop the case.

They could face cost bills of millions of pounds as a result.

Good news for tobacco firms

Gallaher and Imperial say they will not seek costs against the claimants who withdraw their cases because they claim they would not have taken out a case if they had not been "encouraged" by their lawyers.

Imperial said it regretted the claimants had been advised to pursue the case.

Ian Birks, head of corporate affairs at Gallaher said Friday's decision was "good news" for the company and its shareholders.

The case effectively spells the end of UK litigation against tobacco firms
"We were always confident that we would not be defeated," he added.

The case throws a spotlight on the different legal and political environment that exists between the US and the UK.

Tobacco companies are facing multi-million pound compensation bills in the USA from claimants who say they have become ill as a result of smoking.

"It is a very, very different legal, political and financial environment than in the USA," said Mr Birks.

Judge blamed

Anti-smoking charity ASH blamed Mr Justice Wright for the case's collapse.

Clive Bates, its director, said: "Without ever hearing the evidence, the judge effectively killed the case."

He expressed his respect for the people who had pursued the case and added that he was concerned it could send a negative signal to lawyers interested in public interest litigation.

"The legal firms involved have sunk an enormous amount of money and time into this pioneering action, yet the signal from this case is that the judiciary is instinctively inclined to support big business and the status quo.

"The contrast with the United States could not be greater or more depressing."

Dr Bill O'Neill, science and research adviser at the British Medical Association said the result of the case was "deeply frustrating".

He said tobacco companies had used "every procedural trick possible to deny liability".

He added that other legal routes needed to be explored, but said hope may now rest with government legislation.

The NHS Confederation, which is itself considering legal action against tobacco firms on behalf of health trusts and authorities, says the High Court case will have no bearing on its decision.

"It is a totally separate matter," said a spokeswoman.

The government says the Confederation cannot legally take action, but it is consulting members to see if a feasibility study should be undertaken.

The BBC's Joshua Rozenberg on the tobacco case
The BBC's Joshua Rozenberg: "The claimants' lawyers felt they had to cut their losses"
Ian Birks of Gallaher: "It was lawyer driven litigation"
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