Quebec Court of Appeal upholds ruling ordering tobacco companies to pay billions to smokers

André Lesperance, one of the class action lawyers, holds up a copy of the decision by the Quebec Court of Appeal's to uphold a Superior Court ruling in two class-action lawsuits against three tobacco companies, Friday, March 1, 2019 in Montreal. Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Quebec’s highest court has upheld a historic ruling that ordered three major cigarette companies to pay billions in damages to smokers in the province.

Imperial Tobacco, JTI-Macdonald and Rothmans, Benson & Hedges were appealing a Quebec Superior Court decision from 2015 stemming from what is believed to be of one the biggest class-action lawsuits in Canada.

READ MORE: $15 billion awarded to Quebec smokers in landmark class-action lawsuit

Bruce Johnson, a lawyer representing the smokers who brought the class action, called it a tremendously important ruling for the public health system.

“For all intents and purposes, the judgment has been 100 per cent confirmed. There has been an extensive review of the evidence — 422 pages in which the unanimous court found the tobacco companies intentionally misled the public,” he said.

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“They created a false controversy in science. They intentionally misled the public as to the dangers of their products with the intent of getting them addicted to a virtually useless product.”

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The case, which originally stemmed from two separate cases in 1998, marked the first time tobacco companies had gone to trial in a civil suit in Canada. It involved two groups of plaintiffs: those who were addicted to tobacco and those who became seriously ill from smoking.

The case, which began sitting in 2012, heard from more than 70 witnesses over 234 days in Montreal.

In 2015, Justice Brian Riordan ordered the three companies to pay $15 billion in damages to both sets of Quebec plaintiffs.

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The three tobacco companies appealed the decision in 2016. They argued their customers knew the risks associated with smoking, saying tobacco products were sold legally and with federal government approval.

On Friday, the Quebec Court of Appeal upheld the decision and struck down the companies’ grounds for appeal. However, the appeals court said Riordan erred in several minor aspects, such as how the interest was calculated.

Philippe Trudel, a lawyer for smokers who brought the class action, estimated that after the appeal ruling, the total damages owed by the companies would be more than $17 billion.

“It is excellent news for victims who have been waiting for this day for a long time,” he said.

Will it go to the Supreme Court of Canada?

Eric Gagnon, the head of corporate affairs at Imperial Tobacco, said he was disappointed by the the court’s decision to uphold the 2015 ruling.

We continue to believe we shouldn’t be held responsible because adults have made a conscious decision to smoke,” he said.

Rothmans, Benson & Hedges said it would seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. In a statement, managing director Peter Luongo said the plaintiffs failed to provide evidence that the company misled anyone.

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“RBH should not be held liable to those who chose to smoke in light of these well-known risks,” Luongo said.

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Lise Blais, however, applauded the decision at a news conference on Friday afternoon but said she will continue to fight if the tobacco firms appeal.

Her husband, Jean-Yves Blais, filed one of the two lawsuits. He died from lung cancer in 2012.

“If we go to the Supreme Court, I will be there,” she said.

— With files from Global’s Elysia Bryan-Baynes and The Canadian Press

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