Feds can't be dragged into Big Tobacco suits

MONTREAL – The Quebec Court of Appeal says the federal government cannot be sued or held liable for damages in lawsuits involving Big Tobacco.

And in a province where big tobacco is being sued for $27 billion in a landmark case, the ruling could have an impact on the landmark trial.

Tobacco companies have tried using the federal government to defend themselves in the case, saying their cigarette sales simply followed government guidelines. The companies say they will sue Ottawa to recoup damages if they lose the case.

The verdict was rendered late yesterday by the province’s highest court.

It comes on the heels of a unanimous Supreme Court of Canada ruling in July 2011 that decided the federal government can’t be dragged into court cases aimed at getting tobacco companies to foot the bill for smokers who get sick.

The latest Quebec ruling says the Supreme Court case, involving two lawsuits from B.C., is no different from the case in Quebec.

A massive, two-year civil trial underway in Quebec has often heard from tobacco companies who’ve defended themselves by saying they were simply following federal health authorities’ recommendations. The companies say the ruling will not have any impact on their defence.

The federal government had been pursued as a third-party defendant and the tobacco industry had said it would seek to recover damages from Ottawa if it lost.

Because the feds had been involved in the case Quebec for many years, they were obliged to defend themselves and denied any liability.

The three tobacco companies have 30 days to determine whether they will appeal.