Philip Morris v. Angeletti

Decision Date16 May 2000
Docket NumberMisc. No. 2
Citation752 A.2d 200,358 Md. 689
PartiesPHILIP MORRIS INCORPORATED, et al. v. The Honorable Edward J. ANGELETTI.
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

Gary R. Long (Robert C. Heim, Judy L. Leone, Ronni E. Fuchs, Dechert Price & Rhoads, Philadelphia, PA; James K. Archibald, Marina Lolley Dame, Venable, Baetjer and Howard, LLP, Baltimore), all on brief, for appellants.

Carmen M. Shepard, Deputy Atty. Gen. (J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Atty. Gen., Baltimore), Sherrilyn A. Ifill, Professor of Law, University of MD School of Law, for appellee.

Argued June 4, 1998 before BELL, C.J., and ELDRIDGE, RODOWSKY, CHASANOW, RAKER, WILNER and CATHELL, JJ.

Reargued April 6, 2000 before BELL, C.J., and ELDRIDGE, RODOWSKY, RAKER, WILNER, CATHELL and HARRELL, JJ. RAKER, Judge.

Petitioners, a host of tobacco manufacturers and related entities, have filed a petition with this Court for a writ of mandamus or prohibition, asking that we direct the Circuit Court for Baltimore City to vacate its certification of two classes of Maryland residents who, as current or former users of tobacco products, have filed a suit against Petitioners claiming to have been injured by tobacco use or addicted to nicotine. We shall grant the extraordinary relief of mandamus and order the Circuit Court to decertify the classes.

I. The Case

On May 24, 1996, Respondents1 filed a complaint in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City against all manufacturers of tobacco and their Maryland distributors, as well as two industry trade groups and a marketing and public relations firm, the majority of whom have jointly filed the petition now before this Court.2 Seeking both compensatory and punitive damages as well as injunctive relief, Respondents assert claims on behalf of themselves and all similarly situated Maryland residents (a) who have suffered or continue to suffer from physical injuries or disease caused by smoking cigarettes or using smokeless tobacco products, and/or (b) who are nicotine dependent and plead addiction as an injury. Respondents' Fourth Amended Complaint alleges ten counts, eight of which embody traditional causes of action sounding in tort and contract: fraud and deceit, negligent misrepresentation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, breach of express and implied warranties, strict product liability, and conspiracy. In addition, the complaint avers that Petitioners have violated several provisions of the Maryland Consumer Protection Act, codified at Maryland Code (1975, 2000 Repl.Vol.) §§ 13-101 to 13-501 of the Commercial Law Article. Lastly, Respondents plead a cause of action heretofore unrecognized in Maryland, requesting equitable/injunctive relief in the form of court-supervised, defendant-funded "medical monitoring" of the classes, to detect, prevent and treat future disease, and to treat addiction.

Respondents filed a Motion for Class Certification on September 5, 1997. Following oral argument on the motion, the Circuit Court issued an Order and Memorandum Opinion on January 28, 1998, granting the Motion for Class Certification. More specifically, the court approved for class action treatment, under Maryland Rule 2-231(b)(3), Respondents' eight traditional tort and contract causes of action and single consumer protection claim. In addition, the trial judge found Respondents' claim for medical monitoring appropriate for prosecution as a class action, under Rule 2-231(b)(2).

Thereafter, on February 19, 1998, the Circuit Court issued the following order certifying two classes:

Case No. 96145050/CE212596, styled Mildred C. Richardson, et al., Plaintiffs v. Philip Morris Inc., et al., Defendants shall be maintained as a class action on behalf of the following classes of plaintiffs:

a) Serious Injury and Death Claims:

All Maryland residents as of the date of class notice who have suffered, presently suffer, or who have died of diseases, medical conditions, and injury (while a resident of Maryland) caused by smoking cigarettes or using smokeless tobacco products that contain nicotine, and

1) The estates, representatives, and administrators of these persons; and

2) The spouses, children, relatives and significant others of these persons as their heirs or survivors; and

b) Nicotine Dependence Claims:

All nicotine dependent persons in Maryland who have purchased and used cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products manufactured by the Defendant Tobacco Companies. For the purposes of defining this class of claims, "nicotine dependent" shall be defined as:

1) All cigarette smokers or smokeless tobacco users who have been diagnosed by a medical practitioner as nicotine dependent, and/or;

2) All cigarette smokers who have regularly smoked more than 15 cigarettes per day for at least three years and who have made at least one unsuccessful effort to quit smoking, and/or;

3) All regular daily users of smokeless tobacco products for at least three years and who have made at least one unsuccessful effort to quit using smokeless tobacco.3

(Circuit Court Class Certification Order at 1-2). The order excluded all past and present officers, directors, and agents of the defendant corporations from the classes. In addition, the order named class representatives, designated counsel for the classes, approved a Class Action Notice Plan, and provided for exclusion of class members.

By virtue of its orders in this case, the Circuit Court implicitly approved Respondents' proposed trial plan, which consists of three phases. Phase I would entail a class action jury trial conducted principally to determine whether Petitioners are liable to the classes. During Phase I, the jury would make determinations as to factual and legal issues allegedly common to all members of the classes, including, inter alia, whether the nicotine in Petitioners' cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products are addictive; whether Petitioners have manipulated nicotine levels of their products; whether Petitioners knew and intentionally concealed information that tobacco causes disease; whether cigarettes are defectively designed; whether the 1969 Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act preempts any claims by Respondents or the class members; whether contributory negligence and assumption of the risk are applicable under Maryland law; and whether punitive damages are applicable under Maryland law.

For any claims upon which Respondents prevail during Phase I, Phase II would enable the named representative of each class or subclass to try the issues of causation and damages before the class jury. Finally, Phase III would involve trial of individual issues of class membership, causation, smoking history and damages for each and every absent class member. During Phase III, after having established class membership, individual class members could proceed in one of several ways: (1) conduct a full jury trial on Phase III issues; (2) accept the damages determined in Phase II; (3) conduct a summary jury trial on Phase III issues; or (4) conduct proceedings before a magistrate or special master on all Phase III issues.

On February 25, 1998, Petitioners filed a Motion for Reconsideration of Class Notice and to Stay Issuance of Class Notice. The Circuit Court held a hearing on this motion on March 27, 1998 and ultimately denied it. On April 8, 1998, Petitioners filed the present Petition for Writ of Mandamus and/or Writ of Prohibition, urging this Court to issue a writ commanding the Circuit Court to decertify the classes. On the same day, Petitioners filed a motion in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City requesting a stay of class notice pending this Court's consideration of the Petition for Writ of Mandamus and/or Writ of Prohibition, which motion the Circuit Court denied. On May 7, 1998, Petitioners filed with this Court a Motion for a Stay of Class Notice Pending Petition for Writ of Mandamus and/or Writ of Prohibition, oppositions to which Respondents and the Attorney General filed a week later. On May 15, 1998, this Court ordered that the Motion for Stay be granted pending this Court's decision on the present Petition for Writ of Mandamus and/or Writ of Prohibition.

II. Arguments

We shall lay out the stated positions of the parties in this section, and discuss certain arguments in more detail throughout the opinion. Petitioners argue that this Court should issue a writ of mandamus or prohibition because irreparable harm will result to the parties and the judicial system if Petitioners are required to await end-of-the-case appeal. According to Petitioners, the opportunity to appeal the class certification might not arise until the Phase III trials are well underway, which, if class certification is improper, would entail a tremendous waste of judicial resources. Hence, we are urged to compel the Circuit Court to decertify the classes as an exercise in aid of our appellate jurisdiction or, in the alternative, as an execution of this Court's superintendency, whether inherent or bestowed, over the lower courts of this State.

Petitioners contend that the Circuit Court grossly abused its discretion in certifying the class action in violation of Maryland Rule 2-231 and Petitioners' constitutional rights. They maintain that because of the number of individual liability issues involved in this litigation, the Circuit Court grossly abused its discretion in holding that Respondents met the class action requirements of predominance, superiority and manageability. Most notably, the Circuit Court either ignored or glossed over several significant individual issues, such as conflict-of-laws, contributory negligence, assumption of the risk, statutes of limitation, fraud and reliance, and causation, the aggregation of some or all of which precludes certification.

Finally, Petitioners attribute four errors of law to the Circuit Court in rendering its decision. First, Petitioners argue that the splitting of interrelated issues, most notably...

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