Juul Labs Inc., maker of the top-selling e-cigarette device in the U.S., asked a federal court panel in Los Angeles to send dozens of lawsuits it faces over the almost daily revelations of the health risks of its product to a judge in its hometown of San Francisco.
Austin Schwing, a lawyer for Juul, made the pitch Thursday at a hearing before the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multi-District Litigation, which determines whether suits filed in federal courts across the U.S. are similar enough that pre-trial proceedings involving information exchanges and evidence gathering should be managed by a single judge.
Schwing said the company faces at least 55 suits in more than 20 states. The company agreed with most of the plaintiffs’ lawyers that class-action suits over false advertising and personal-injury cases focused on consumers allegedly sickened or killed by vaping should be combined before one judge. At least 12 deaths in the U.S. have been attributed to the practice so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
U.S. District Judge William Orrick in San Francisco is already overseeing a consolidated class-action lawsuit, brought last year by 44 plaintiffs from 22 states. The e-cigarette maker is accused in the suit of copying the now illegal marketing strategies of the tobacco industry to target young people, leading to a youth-vaping epidemic. Orrick last month allowed much of that case to move forward.
Some plaintiffs’ lawyers asked the panel to consider sending the cases to U.S. District Judge Brian Martinotti in New Jersey who has overseen other consolidated cases during his time on the federal bench and as a state court judge.
Andy Birchfield, an Alabama-based lawyer, compared the fast-growing number of lawsuits over vaping to opioid-abuse litigation in its complexity and breadth. He said Martinotti would help efficiently move the cases along.
“This is a massive litigation that is massively complex,” Birchfield told the panel. “We need an experienced hand” to oversee the consolidated cases.
The judges didn’t immediately rule on the request, nor did they indicate which way they might be leaning. The panel’s decision will have a big impact on the cases because it gathers them before one judge for pretrial rulings. The process is designed to streamline evidence exchanges and avoid duplication. Once pretrial proceedings are done, the judge may select some cases for test trials. The rest ultimately will be sent back for trial to the courts in which they were first filed.
Aside from the federal suits, Juul faces dozens of cases in state courts around the country accusing it of failing to warn consumers about the risks of vaping and illegally marketing nicotine-delivery devices to minors. Cities and states are looking at banning flavored versions of vaping products to address a recent explosion of use by teens.
Altria Group Inc., the maker of the top-selling U.S. cigarette, Marlboro, last year invested $12.8 billion in Juul, placing a big bet that e-cigarettes will be an important part of the tobacco business. That made the parent company of Philip Morris USA the largest shareholder in the vaping company, with a 35% stake. Yesterday, Juul’s CEO Kevin Burns stepped down and was replaced by ex-Altria executive K.C. Crosthwaite.
The case is: In re Juul Labs Inc., marketing sales practices and product liability litigation, MDL2913, U.S. Judicial Panel on Multi-District Litigation.
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