The largest courtroom in Newfoundland Supreme Court in St. John’s was filled with lawyers Thursday for the start of a hearing about whether or not a case against big tobacco can he heard here.
Close to a dozen of them — some from this province, others from elsewhere — were seated at the lawyers’ benches. Even the spectators were lawyers.
It’s no surprise, considering what’s at stake.
The province’s attorney general filed the lawsuit against several multinational tobacco companies, seeking to recover past health-care costs, and future treatment of patients who suffer from a variety of ailments caused by tobacco.
It’s also seeking the cost of the legal proceedings for the province.
Many of the lawyers in court represent major tobacco companies, including Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc., Philip Morris U.S.A. Inc., JTI-Macdonald Corp., R.J. Reynolds, Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., British American Tobacco and the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers’ Council.
Chief Justice David Orsborn is hearing the case, which took almost two years to get to court.
But before considering the bigger issue, the judge must determine whether or not the court has jurisdiction to make, or enforce, an order against the companies resulting from litigation.
That was the issue argued Thursday. After hearing arguments on the matter most of the day, Orsborn reserved his decision. He didn’t indicate how long it would take before he’s ready to render it.
Newfoundland and Labrador is the fourth province to file a statement of claim against the tobacco industry — Ontario, British Columbia and New Brunswick are the other three — and more provinces are working towards doing so.
In order for the court to hear the case, it must first be determined to be “a good, arguable case.”
The same argument regarding jurisdiction was raised in the Ontario lawsuit.
In May, the Ontario government was successful when the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled there was a sufficient cause of action with a sufficient connection to Ontario.
This province was able to proceed as a result of the Tobacco Health Care Costs Recovery Act, which was developed in May 2001.
The act gives the government authority to sue tobacco companies for the cost of treating smoking-related illnesses, which is estimated to be $360 million a year.
The act wasn’t proclaimed until Feb. 8, 2011. It was anticipated tobacco manufacturers would challenge the legislation, as they had in other provinces.
Similar cases, mostly in the United States, have resulted in multibillion-dollar out-of-court settlements.