Class Actions, Punitive Damages, and Decreasing Consumption of Tobacco Products

AuthorSarah Kettani
Sarah Kettani
Abstract: In 2015, the Superior Court of Quebec awarded over
$15 billion in damages, including $1.6 billion in punitive
damages, in a cla ss action against th ree major tobacco com-
panies. This judgment i s signif‌icant as it repre sents the f‌irst
successful cla ss action against a tobacco company in Canada.
In light of the Superior Court judgment, t his essay ex plores
whether awards of punitive da mages against tobacco compan-
ies in class act ion proceedings can play a role in decre asing
demand for tobacco products. It will be a rgued that puni-
tive damages awar ds, especial ly in the context of large clas s
actions, can be a powerf ul complementary tool to advance
regulatory effort s to decrease tobacco consumption. Tobacco is
a unique product, in that it is an i nherently dangerous prod-
uct with no safe consumption level that is lawfully s old, thus
requiring a un ique regulatory respon se. At the domestic and
international level, t he response has b een an indirect ban.
Regulators have use d the concepts of de-normaliz ation and
consumer empowerment to reduce the demand for tobacco
products, with the hopes of re aching a zero-consumption
level. Similarly, awards of punitive da mages can contribute
to the de-normaliz ation of the tobacco industry by shedd ing
light on the misconduct of tobacco companies. P unitive dam-
ages awarded in clas s action proceedings can a lso increase
access to justice, provide f‌in ancial incentives, and restore power
inequalities b etween merchants and consumers, resulting
198 The Cana dian Cl ass Action Re view
in consumer empowerment. In doing s o, awards of punitive
damages contr ibute to curtailing demand for tobacco products
and go hand in hand w ith the current regu latory approach.
Sarah Kettani*
In June 2015, Riordan J of the Superior Court of Quebec awarded over
$15 billion in damages against t hree major tobacco companies, JTI-
Macdonald, Imperi al Tobacco Canada, and Roth mans, Bensons & Hedges,
in a landmark 276-page judgment.1 The case involved two dif ferent class
actions heard together, that span ned the course of sixteen ye ars and
totalle d 253 days of hearing.2 The Blais class act ion was made on behalf
of 100,000 people with lung cancer, throat cancer, or emphysema.3 The
Létourneau class action wa s taken on behalf of nea rly 1 million people
addicted to nicotine.4 The court found that in both ca ses, the tobacco
companies committed fault s under four headings: “the general rule of
civil liabil ities,” “the safety defect in cigarettes,” “an unlawful i nterfer-
ence with a right under t he Quebec Charter (‘Charter’),” and “a pro-
hibited practice under the Consu mer Protection Act (‘CPA’).5 As a result,
the court awarded $6.9 billion in compens atory moral damages for the
Blais cla ss, amounting to more than $15 billion when tak ing interests
* Sarah Ketta ni obtained a bachelor of civi l law and bachelor of common law
from McGill Univers ity in 2015 and a master of laws in commerc ial and cor-
porate law from the Un iversity of Auckland in 2016. She will be ad mitted as a
barri ster and solicitor in New Zealan d in September 2017.
1 Létourneau c JT I-MacDonald Corp, 2015 QCCS 2382 [Blais-Létourneau].
2 Myriam Br ixi, “Historic Quebe c Lawsuit Against Tobacco Companie s: the Supe-
rior Court Awards More t han $15 Billion in Damages” Lavery Lawyers (10 June
2015), online: /publication s/our-publications /1868-histor ic-
quebec-lawsuit-against-tobacco-companies-the- superior-court-awards-more-
than-15-billion-in-d amages.html [B rix i].
3 Blais-Létourneau, above note 1 at 11 (Summary of the judg ment).
4 Ibid at 10 and 12 (Summary of the judg ment).
5 Ibid at para 643.

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