Lawyers and Solicitors Separated
by a Common Legal System
Anti-Tobacco Litigation in the United States and Britain
When people take risks with a product and get sick, who is responsible? The individual risk taker? 'The maker of the harmful product? Or government, acting to protect the health of its citizens? Tobacco use gives pleasure, but also a high risk of illness and death. Countries vary enormously in how they deal with tobacco, and smoking rates are likewise quite different across the world. Some governments own their own tobacco companies and enjoy the resulting revenue. Others implicitly encourage private corporations who manufacture tobacco, accepting their political and economic support, and letting individuals assess public health risks themselves. Still others actively discourage tobacco use through regulation and taxation. Litigation provides another avenue for regulation.
American plaintiff lawyers have filed thousands of suits against tobacco manufacturers. Most cases lost, but there have been some enormous verdicts for plaintiffs and a massive settlement with the states for $246 billion dollars in 1998. In Britain, very few anti-tobacco suits have been filed, and only two cases have come to court, both of which lost. Why are there such differences in the patterns and results of tort litigation against tobacco in the United States and in Britain? Focusing on the role of lawyers, I explore how the structure of lawyers' fees, the organization of the legal profession, and support for political litigation express cultural values about the role of law in compensating for injury and deterring misconduct. These factors influenced the willingness of American, English, and Scottish lawyers to represent clients in suits against tobacco manufacturers and shaped the trajectories and outcomes of their cases.