Philip Morris denied rehearing

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) – The Illinois Supreme Court said Friday it will not reconsider its decision to throw out a $10 billion verdict against tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris USA, drawing harsh criticism and promises of an appeal to the nation’s highest court.

The court issued an order Friday denying plaintiffs’ request to rehear the case.

The court ruled 4-2 in December that the verdict handed down by a Madison County court was invalid and ordered that lower court to dismiss the case. The court said Philip Morris did not improperly mislead customers about the health effects of its cigarettes.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs said they planned to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. The state Supreme Court did not comment on why it refused to reconsider the case, but two justices strongly disagreed.

Justices Charles Freeman and Thomas Kilbride said the rest of the court overlooked or misunderstood significant questions raised by the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, which involved 1.1 million people who had bought “light” cigarettes in Illinois.

They said the court seemed more concerned with ending the case than making the most informed decision.

“The court’s denial of the petition for rehearing does not speak well of the court,” Freeman wrote in a 14-page dissent. “It is disappointing, and will ultimately prove to be embarrassing. History will be the judge.”

A spokeswoman for the tobacco company, a unit of New York-based Altria Group Inc., said the company was pleased with the ruling and had no further comment.

Stephen Tillery, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said he was surprised the court didn’t ask federal authorities for more input.

In the December ruling, the court found that the Federal Trade Commission allowed companies to characterize their cigarettes as “light” and “low tar.” As a result, Philip Morris could not be held liable under state law even if the terms they used could be found false or misleading, Justice Rita Garman wrote.

But plaintiffs argued that the FTC had rescinded the order allowing that type of advertising. They urged the court to ask the FTC for more guidance, and Freeman and Kilbride agreed that should have been done.

“It’s beyond curious to us as to why the court with a matter of this magnitude would not refer the matter to the FTC,” Tillery said. “Who knows?”

Tillery said he plans to make similar arguments to the U.S. Supreme Court but doesn’t expect an answer until the fall.

One legal expert said Freeman’s dissent is unusual in specifically spelling out that the court should have asked for FTC involvement.

Ottawa-based attorney Michael Reagan also said widespread interest in the case and the support of two Illinois justices should aid the plaintiffs’ request.

“A dissent is always looked at carefully, and it’s far better to have one than not,” said Reagan, former president of the Illinois Appellate Lawyers Association. “This is not just a localized controversy.”

Altria shares rose 16 cents to close at $73.81 on the New York Stock Exchange. They have traded in a 52-week range of $63.60 to $78.68.

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