MONTREAL – Final legal arguments began Monday in a landmark and 16-year multibillion-dollar battle pitting Quebec smokers against Big Tobacco.
The plaintiffs — a group that includes an estimated one million Quebecers — are suing three Canadian tobacco manufacturers for $17.8 billion in what has been described as the country’s biggest class-action ever.
They argue the companies are liable because they knew they were putting out a harmful product and hid the health effects from the public.
The suit involves separate groups of Quebec plaintiffs — some who became seriously ill from smoking and others who said they couldn’t quit.
The defendants are Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd.; Rothmans, Benson & Hedges; and JTI-Macdonald. They argue the dangerous health effects of tobacco have been common knowledge for decades and that there was no conspiracy to conceal anything.
Initially the lawsuit was valued at $27 billion and included 1.8 million Quebecers, but a 2013 ruling changed the definition of who could qualify.
The trial stems from two actions that were filed in 1998 and certified and consolidated in 2005 by Quebec Superior Court.
For the family of the late Jean-Yves Blais, one of the lead plaintiffs 16 years ago, the possibility of an end to the legal saga is welcome news.
Blais died after having smoked since the 1950s and failing several times to quit. His son Martin and widow Lise attended the proceedings Monday.
Lise Blais said her husband would try to give up the habit but would invariably be lured by the towering presence of cigarettes on the shelves whenever he walked into a convenience store.
With what little energy he had left in his final days, Jean-Yves Blais remained passionate, even cocky, about the case, his son said.
“I’m sad for my father, he was killed by what he liked the most, which was smoking,” said Martin Blais. “And it’s sad that he died doing something he liked.”
It took 14 years for the case to reach trial, with proceedings repeatedly slowed by motions and appeals by tobacco industry lawyers.
“It has been a very long road, but at the same time, that’s the time it took to make the evidence in the trial and present all we had to say to the judge,” said Mario Bujold, executive-director of the Quebec Council on Tobacco and Health.
“It was long, it was really long for the victims. Many of them died during the trial. I think that’s the saddest thing — justice takes time, but we’re near the end, so we’re happy about that.”
There have been 90 judgments rendered in the case over the years, with 78 witnesses taking the stand in 234 days of testimony since 2012.
Bujold said the evidence suggests to his group that the companies conspired to keep mum about the health effects of tobacco use for more than 40 years.
The closing arguments are expected to last several weeks and a decision from Quebec Superior Court Justice Brian Riordan isn’t expected for some time.
Conscious that more appeals are likely, Bujold said lawyers for the plaintiffs are asking for a judgment that could, in part, be applied immediately.
Some 27,000 documents were filed as exhibits, including many confidential company memos and studies that showed people didn’t know or understand the health risks relating to smoking.
But the industry has argued people knew about smoking-related risks smoking and that the products were sold legally and with federal government approval.
“People knew about the health risks associated with smoking for many decades and the federal government who licensed and enabled us to sell those products knew about those health risks for many decades,” said Eric Gagnon, spokesman for Imperial Tobacco Canada, when asked to sum up his firm’s arguments.
“So we don’t believe that the tobacco industry should be held responsible for personal choices that people made, knowing there were health risks associated with smoking.”
Those arguments didn’t hold water for Jean-Yves Blais, his son said.
“He wasn’t impressed by all the tobacco company (arguments), he wanted to win (the case),” Martin Blais said. “Maybe he’ll win, but now he’s in heaven … he knew that his health was declining because of his addiction.”
The case is distinct from civil suits launched by several provinces to recoup health-care costs from smoking-related disease, but many of the arguments in those cases overlap.
A number of lawyers from other provinces attended Monday’s hearing as a result.
All provinces have passed laws that allow them to go after so-called Big Tobacco for health-care costs stemming from smoking-related disease and most have filed legal actions to that effect.
Note to readers: This is a corrected version. A previous story said the lawsuit was for $27 billion and that an estimated 1.8 million Quebecers were involved.