Germany To Get First U.S.-Style Tobacco Suit | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 14.07.2003
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Germany To Get First U.S.-Style Tobacco Suit

The battle against tobacco giants, long raging in the U.S. legal system, may have arrived in Germany as a court here for the first time admits a lawsuit by a chain smoker against cigarette-maker Reemtsma.


Are Germany's 18 million smokers beginning to turn on the tobacco industry?

In a legal development that evokes memories of the billion dollar anti-tobacco lawsuits in the United States, a 55-year-old German man is suing cigarette manufacturer Reemtsma, claiming the company's products caused him to have a heart attack.

Plaintiff Wolfgang Heine says that chain smoking caused his heart failure, which ultimately led him to undergo two expensive bypass operations. Heine now wants Reemtsma to pay, saying the company failed to inform him of the dangers of smoking in the 1980s. According to the newsmagazine Focus, which first report the case over the weekend, a court in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia has agreed to hear the €400,000 ($451,400) lawsuit. The first proceedings are expected to begin in November.

Little impact expected

So far, Germany's tobacco industry has been sheltered from lawsuits like those that have rocked tobacco companies in the U.S. That's why tobacco companies here fear that if the plaintiff is awarded damages by the court, it could open the floodgates for tobacco lawsuits.

But some say Heine has little chance of succeeding with his suit. A spokesman at public health insurance giant Barmer told Deutsche Welle that he was "skeptical" about the case "fundamentally changing anything." He said medical files in the case would have to "without a doubt" trace Heine's illness to his smoking.

Together with other health insurance companies, Barmer planned to launch a similar lawsuit toward the end of the 1990s, but then dropped it after the Federal Court of Justice (BGH) threw out Germany's only other anti-tobacco case in May 2000.

At the time a smoker suffering from cancer sued two tobacco companies, but the plaintiff's application for legal aid worth 100,000 deutsche marks was rejected on account of its low chances of success. Barmer then decided it was too risky to continue with its claim.

Tobacco litigation common in U.S.

With close to 18 million smokers who spend an estimated €21 billion yearly to support their habit, the stakes would be enormous if a wave of litigation were to strike.

In the United States, this is already familiar territory for tobacco companies.

The first lawsuit by a lung-cancer victim in 1954 in America proved to be the tip of an iceberg. U.S. tobacco companies have since been hard hit by an avalanche of complaints by ill smokers hoping to recoup billions of dollars worth of medical bills. There, plaintiffs allege that the tobacco companies target young people in order to hook them early and that they conduct research aimed at finding ways of reinforcing nicotine addiction.

The disclosure of tobacco company secrets by Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, a top U.S. tobacco scientist in 1993, was turned into the gripping plot of the Oscar-winning Hollywood movie "The Insider." His testimony led in part to a record $145 billion fine imposed on five U.S. tobacco companies -- including Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds, Lorillard Tobacco, Brown & Williamson and Liggett Group -- in July 2000 for misleading some 700,000 Florida residents on the health risks of smoking.

Although a U.S. Appeals Court overturned the ruling in May this year -- saying the plaintiffs should have been required to file individual lawsuits rather than a class action suit -- the case remains a prominent example of the financial muscle involved in tobacco litigation in the States. The plaintiffs of the original case are now seeking to challenge big tobacco once again in court.

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