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UK hearing sets number of cancer patients to sue tobacco companies

BMJ 1998; 317 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.317.7173.1614 (Published 12 December 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;317:1614
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. BMJ

    A crucial hearing which could decide whether a compensation claim by people with lung cancer against British tobacco companies gets off the ground, opened in the High Court in London this week.

    The judge for the case, Mr Justice Wright, has to decide whether claims on behalf of 36 former smokers who were diagnosed with lung cancer more than three years before writs were issued can go ahead. Claims in personal injury cases must normally be brought within three years but judges have the discretion to let cases proceed outside the time limit. Of the 52 claimants in the group action against Gallaher and Imperial Tobacco, only 16 are within the time limit. If the others fail to win the go ahead, the numbers left could be too small to make the litigation viable.

    The outcome of the two week hearing, expected to be announced early in the new year, will be a pointer to the likely success of the action, set to go to trial in January 2000. In deciding whether to exercise his discretion, the judge will have to take a view on the merits of the claims. The patients with cancer argue that between 1957 and 1971 the companies should have reduced the tar levels in cigarettes more quickly and to lower levels than they did.

    Opening the case Brian Langstaff QC, for the plaintiffs, told the judge that the two companies had denied the obvious truth that smoking causes cancer. By 1957 there could be no doubt that there was at the very least a significant risk attached to smoking cigarettes, he argued. Responsible manufacturers would have been aware of the risk and were under a duty to alter the product so as to minimise it. Between 1957 and 1971, he said, the technology was available for tar levels to be progressively reduced from well over 30 mg per cigarette to no more than 10 mg.

    The litigation focuses on eight lead cases chosen to represent the plaintiffs as a whole. Mr Langstaff said that the eight had suffered injury because the cigarettes with which they were supplied between the ‘50s and the ‘70s contained more tar than was reasonably safe or appropriate. Clive Bates, director of the antismoking pressure group ASH, said: “We think the tobacco companies were negligent and have a serious case to answer.”

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