When Angelo Pisani filed a lawsuit last October against Philip Morris and Ente Tabacchi, which was once Italy's state-owned tobacco company, he wasn't looking to pocket the €2.4 million in damages he's seeking. He has pledged to donate any award to charity. Instead, he has a personal mission: his father died of lung cancer in 1996 at 65 and Pisani believes cigarette marketing misled him to an early grave. Pisani senior like many fellow Neapolitans a lifelong smoker switched from Marlboros to Merit Lights a few years before he was diagnosed with lung cancer. "He was convinced that light cigarettes did less harm," says Pisani, 31.
Pisani's suit is one of more than a dozen against cigarette manufacturers currently winding their way through the courts in at least three European countries. Dublin lawyer Peter McDonnell represents one contingent of plaintiffs his clients have included some 300 individuals. McDonnell launched the first legal proceedings against tobacco companies in Ireland in 1997, shortly after the initial spate of anti-tobacco victories in U.S. courts, but none of those cases has yet made it to trial.
As in the U.S., European litigants have been emboldened by recent evidence that tobacco manufacturers have long known of the harm their product causes. "As Europeans absorb the fact that the industry was targeting them and lying about the dangers of the products, you're going to see a lot more suits being filed and being won," says Richard Daynard, a law professor and president of the Tobacco Products Liability Project in Boston, Massachusetts.
Easier said than won. More than 200 plaintiffs have abandoned or discontinued their claims or seen them thrown out on procedural grounds in Ireland, points out John Gleeson, a spokesman for Irish manufacturer P.J. Carroll, a subsidiary of British American Tobacco that has received 26 statements of claim from plaintiffs. As for the notion that company documents will yield the same damning evidence as the U.S. cases, he is dubious. "Everyone looks at the U.S. and says the experience has to be the same here," he says. "We don't believe that the experience in Ireland or our company can be compared with what happened, or allegedly happened, in the U.S. some years ago."
And while American lawsuits have led to devastating judgments that threaten tobacco companies' bottom lines, European plaintiffs face tougher terrain. European law doesn't generally allow for American-style class actions. And because of caps on damages, American super-sized judgments sometimes in the billions of dollars don't exist. Nonetheless, European grievances against big tobacco are coming to court, thanks in part to innovative legal strategies. Earlier Italian cases, which hinged on the absence of warning labels on cigarette packs prior to 1991, were defeated; hence, Pisani's suit is based on the novel claim of false advertising. In another potentially groundbreaking case, Paris-based lawyer Francis Caballero is arguing on behalf of a regional health authority in Western France that the four manufacturers who account for 95% of the local cigarette market should bear the medical costs for 1,200 patients suffering from three kinds of diseases lung cancers, throat cancers and thrombosis linked to smoking. The case is due to be heard in May. With smoking-related dockets busier than ever and potentially precedent-setting verdicts in the works, 2003 could be a turning point for European big tobacco.