Judge declares mistrial in $700M tobacco lawsuit

ST. LOUIS (AP) — A St. Louis judge declared a mistrial Tuesday in a $700 million lawsuit against Philip Morris USA, after jurors failed to reach agreement on whether Missouri smokers were misled into believing that light cigarettes were safer than regular cigarettes.

The ruling by St. Louis Circuit Judge Michael David ended a class-action lawsuit that was originally filed in 2000 and went to trial just last month. Jurors began deliberations Oct. 18 and were into their fifth day before the judge declared the mistrial.

Stephen Swedlow, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said he will take the case to trial again. Swedlow noted that the jury had announced it had voted 8-4 in favor of the plaintiffs, just one favorable vote short of the nine needed to return a civil verdict under Missouri law.

"This jury clearly agreed that Philip Morris had deceived its customers," Swedlow said in a news release. "We'll try this case again and just work harder to convince a ninth juror to understand that this was about Philip Morris' decision to deceive customers to get them to buy a product that was no safer than regular cigarettes."

Philip Morris, the biggest U.S. cigarette maker, said the case had no merit and should never have gone to trial.

"After 11 years of pretrial proceedings and a month and a half of testimony, today's mistrial shows that the plaintiffs failed to convince a jury of their claims," said Murray Garnick, the company's associate general counsel. "We continue to believe that these claims are baseless and today's mistrial shows that we have powerful defense in these 'Lights' cases."

Other suits have been filed over the use of phrases such as "light" and "low tar" for cigarette brands. Philip Morris, which is part of Altria Group Inc., noted that the Federal Trade Commission previously permitted those types of descriptions, which it said were based on results from FTC test methods. But in June 2010, the Food and Drug Administration began prohibiting cigarette makers from using the descriptions on packaging, advertising and labels.

In 2003, a judge in nearby Madison County, Ill., sided against Philip Morris in awarding a $10.1 billion verdict over the marketing of "light" cigarettes in a class action suit on behalf of Illinois smokers. The Illinois Supreme Court overturned the verdict in 2005, and the case has been under appeal since.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that about 700 million packs of Marlboro Light cigarettes were sold in Missouri from early 1995 until the end of 2002, the period covered by the Missouri lawsuit.

The mistrial was the second legal victory this year for big tobacco companies in St. Louis. In the other case, hospitals sought to require tobacco companies to pay the costs of treating smokers' diseases. But after a 2 1/2 month trial, the tobacco companies prevailed.

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