THE United States Supreme Court will take another look at the extent of liability cigarette makers must bear for the widely acknowledged harmful effects of their products. In the case of a New Jersey woman who was a smoker for 42 years and died of lung cancer, the court has agreed to decide whether warning labels now required on cigarette products preempt lawsuits against tobacco companies by individuals or members of their families.
Health warnings have been required since 1965, when Congress enacted the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act. In a 1986 case the US Court of Appeals for the Third District ruled that the act protected the companies from suits alleging false advertising.
In July, 1990, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the labeling law does not preclude consumer lawsuits in state courts.
Last month, a Texas appellate court made a similar ruling.
The case before the high court involves an appeal by the family of Rose Cipollone of New Jersey, who was a smoker for 42 years. Her death in 1984 was attributed to cancer. The case, to be argued in the next Supreme Court term, will determine whether post-1965 challenges to tobacco company actions can be made in both federal and state court, or in neither. Three tobacco companies: Liggett Group; Philip Morris; and Loew's Theatres Inc., the parent company of Lorillard, asked the Supreme Court to accept th e case and settle the dispute.
"Congress simply had no intent whatever to affect product liability suits either way," says Richard Daynard, chairman of the non-profit Tobacco Products Liability Project.
Should the court rule individual lawsuits in order, the result could be hundreds of lawsuits nationwide, says Mr. Daynard.
In other rulings March 26 the court:
Refused to review the Federal Aviation Administration's strict application of a policy, adopted in 1959, that requires airline pilots to retire at age 60. The policy had been upheld in by a federal appeals court last October.
Declined to review an Internal Revenue Service decision that allegedly discriminates against some women whose ex-husbands fail to pay court-ordered child support.
Let stand a decision that while alimony payments can be tax-deductible, a woman whose former spouse refused to make the payments - leaving her to earn extra money to support her children - could not deduct all of that money from her taxes.
Let stand a decision that doctors at the UCLA Medical Center legally used the cells and other bodily substances removed from a patient without his consent to make a profit. For seven years, researchers treated a patient and then used the cells taken during medical procedures to obtain biomedical patents and financial profits without ever informing him of their activities.