WASHINGTON - In a decision preserving state autonomy, the Supreme Court yesterday said smokers in some instances may sue cigarette manufacturers under state law for misrepresenting and concealing the dangers of smoking.

The case, Cipollone v. Liggett Group Inc., has been closely watched because of the potential that cigarette makers could be made liable for billions of dollars in damages. But at its core, the case has heavy implications for federalism, a term that describes the interplay between, and the respective powers of, the federal and state governments.

Writing for the court in its 7-to-2 decision, Justice John Paul Stevens said a federal law mandating warning labels on cigarette packages does not protect manufacturers from suits based on state personal injury laws.

According to Justice Stevens, the federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 prohibits states and federal agencies from mandating particular cautionary statements on cigarette labels, but does not preempt state law claims for damages.

The 1965 law contains a narrowly drawn preemption provision that reads: "No statement relating to smoking and health shall be required in the advertising of [properly labeled] cigarettes."

Justice Stevens said the provision must be analyzed "in the light of the presumption against the preemption of state police power regulations." He added that "there is no general, inherent conflict between federal preemption of state warning requirements and the continued vitality of state common law damages actions."

Under the Constitution's supremacy clause, any state laws or constitutions in conflict with federal law are considered "without effect." But in analyzing supremacy clause cases, the court assumes that "the historic police powers of the states are not to be superseded by federal act unless that is the clear and manifest purpose of Congress," Justice Stevens said.

Justice Stevens said that test was met in the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1969, which contains a broader preemption provision than the 1965 law. Consequently, he said the 1969 law limits the ability of smokers to sue cigarette makers for claims based on breaches of warranty, fraudulent misrepresentation, and conspiracy to misrepresent material facts.

Smokers under the ruling will not be allowed to assert under state law that advertisements featuring young, healthy people neutralize the impact of the required government warning.

Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in a partial dissent, said the 1969 law should not be read to preempt any state common law damages claims.

"The principles of federalism and respect for state sovereignty that underlie the court's reluctance to find preemption where Congress has not spoken directly to the issue apply with equal force where Congress has spoken, though ambiguously," said Justice Blackmun, who was joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy and Justice David H. Souter. "In such cases, the question is not whether Congress intended to preempt state regulation, but to what extent."

Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, dissented from the entire ruling, concluding that the petitioner's failure-to-warn claims should be preempted under the 1965 law, and that all the petitioner's claims should be preempted under the 1969 law.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.