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'Healthy' Smokers Win Landmark Tobacco Ruling

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled today that cigarette smokers who have suffered no apparent injuries to their health may nonetheless bring a lawsuit to force tobacco makers to pay for medical monitoring to scan for cancer that may develop in the future. The case, Donovan v. Philip Morris USA, was decided based on questions certified to the court from the U.S. District Court in Boston. In an opinion authored by Justice Francis X. Spina, the unanimous SJC said the smokers should have their day in court.

Our tort law developed in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, when the vast majority of tortious injuries were caused by blunt trauma and mechanical forces. We must adapt to the growing recognition that exposure to toxic substances and radiation may cause substantial injury which should be compensable even if the full effects are not immediately apparent. ...

When competent medical testimony establishes that medical monitoring is necessary to detect the potential onset of a serious illness or disease due to physiological changes indicating a substantial increase in risk of harm from exposure to a known hazardous substance, the element of injury and damage will have been satisfied and the cost of that monitoring is recoverable in tort. ...

Medical expenses are recoverable not only for direct treatment and diagnosis of a present injury or an injury likely to occur, but for diagnostic tests needed to monitor medically a person who has been substantially exposed to a toxic substance that has created physiological changes indicating a substantial increase in risk that the person will contract a serious illness or disease. The expense of medical monitoring is thus a form of future medical expense and should be treated as such.

The plaintiffs in the case are asking the federal district court to certify the lawsuit as a class action. They purport to represent a class of Massachusetts residents aged 50 and older who smoked Marlboro cigarettes for at least 20 years and who have not been diagnosed with or suspected of having lung cancer. Philip Morris sought to have the case dismissed in the District Court on the grounds that a tort plaintiff must be able to prove an existing physical injury in order to recover damages.That was the question the federal court asked the SJC to decide.

The SJC also ruled that the plaintiffs claims are not blocked by the statute of limitations. Because the technology was only recently developed that would allow the medical monitoring they seek in their complaint, the discovery rule would apply, the SJC said.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on October 19, 2009 at 02:33 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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