Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Rivera v. Phillip Morris (9th Cir. - January 28, 2005)

The Ninth Circuit here partially reversed a grant of summary judgment to Phillip Morris in a tobacco liability case, holding that the plaintiff may well be entitled to a trial under Nevada law. It's a case that's clearly worth mention. Among other things, the opinion basically articulates a roadmap of both the law and facts that may well entitle legions of other plaintiffs to file similar tobacco liability claims. It's obviously an important case.

For some reason, as I read the case, I found myself uniquely distressed about the competing ways in which various courts have addressed nearly identical tobacco liability cases. Obviously, absent a definitive ruling by the Supreme Court on each of the various types of claims that are raised in these cases, each state -- and each federal circuit -- can take (and has taken) its own approach. That doesn't usually bum me out. I recognize that it's somewhat of a problem when like cases get treated differently, but I generally accept such a result as a necessary (albeit deleterious) byproduct of the unique structure of our federalist government and judicial system.

But with a problem that's this widespread, this pervasive, and this damaging to individual people, it seems starkly unfair that one plaintiff should potentially receive millions while another -- in a virtually identical situation -- should receive nothing. They both were treated the same way. The tobacco companies acted identically towards each. It seems powerfully wrong that one group -- for reasons of resources, geography, luck, or whatever -- should become millionaires (albeit typically in death), while another group is compelled to die with ne'er a penny. Yeah, that's our system. But for some reason, it grates on me here much more than in does in most other areas. It seems wrong.