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California’s Personal Injury Attorneys are Being Inundated With Vaping-Related Illness Claims

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The outbreak of vaping-related lung illnesses that is sweeping the nation has risen to 530 cases, with eight deaths now reported. In June, San Francisco became the first major U.S. city to ban e-cigarettes. California Bay Area cities of Richmond and Livermore have also enacted bans, and the concerns among lawmakers are being felt throughout the state. With at least 12 LA County hospitalizations and one death reported, the Los Angeles city attorney called for a ban on Thursday. California health officials reported this week that they are investigating 67 cases, and one additional death in Tulare County has been confirmed.

Today the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s criminal investigations unit announced that they are launching a criminal probe into e-cigarettes. The number of reported illnesses is expected to rise, and with states like Michigan and New York implementing bans on sales of e-cigarettes, California has taken notice.

Yesterday, Governor, Gavin Newsom, announced a state-wide crackdown on illicit e-cigarettes, and authorized $20 million for a vaping awareness campaign. Newsome has stated publicly that he supports banning all flavored vaping products, though such an act would require legislative action. The Governor indicated that he plans to work with lawmakers in a concerted effort to outlaw such products.

As the state’s legislative process plays out, individuals who are currently experiencing vaping-related illnesses are taking action via personal injury lawsuits. Two deaths have been reported in California, and multiple lawsuits have already been filed against well-known vaping company, Juul, which held three-quarters of the U.S. e-cigarette market at the end of 2018. The lawsuits specifically target Juul Labs Inc. Additional lawsuits are expected amidst increased public scrutiny. Some of the lawsuits have also named Altria Group Inc, a minority stakeholder in Juul, as a defendant. Altria is the parent company of tobacco giant Philip Morris.

In total, approximately 30 lawsuits have been filed over vaping-related injuries in courts around the country, including both individual and class action suits. But that could merely be the tip of the iceberg. With the New York Times reported that 1 in 4 youths has vaped in the past, the number of personal injury lawsuits is expected to skyrocket, potentially reaching epidemic levels.

Today Reuters reported that cases are likely to be consolidated in so-called multidistrict litigation before a federal judge. Currently in California a motion is pending to consolidate federal cases before a Los Angeles judge. Additionally, a motion has been filed in California state court to consolidate the state’s cases. The end-result, particularly with regard to the consolidation of federal cases into California state courts, could mean that vaping-related illness lawsuits will become a major focus for California’s personal injury attorneys, occupying a great deal of their time and energy.

In response to such lawsuits and the overall public outcry, Juul has taken some PR measures to improve their brand image. They pulled two flavors of their product — mango and cucumber — from retailers’ shelves and indicated that their advertising will be refocused to include models over 35 rather than teenagers, who are considered to be more susceptible to such marketing. But those efforts may ultimately prove futile.

Considering Altria’s stake in Juul, and that they are the parent company of Philip Morris, the increasing number of personal injury suits may be causing feelings of deja vu for the company. In 1998, the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement ordered Phillip Morris and the three other largest U.S. tobacco companies (R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, and Lorillard) to pay a minimum of $206 billion over the first 25 years of the agreement. The Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement remains the largest civil suit in U.S. history.

As the number of personal injury cases increase and the laws from state-to-state are reevaluated, one has to consider the possibility that the current rash of e-cigarette illnesses could foreshadow a similar predicament for vape companies as that experienced by tobacco companies beginning in the 90s. As word spreads of individuals seeking damages, and the illness and death toll numbers continue to rise, personal injury lawsuits could very likely increase dramatically. And California could become the ground zero location for where such lawsuits are adjudicated.

Currently, Juul faces over 30 personal injury lawsuits, spanning 12 states. Approximately a dozen are pending in California courts, with around half of those cases being class actions filed on behalf of consumers. The remaining California lawsuits are on behalf of individuals, predominantly minors, claiming injuries such as strokes and collapsed lungs resulted after using Juul’s products. Personal injury attorney, Adam Gutride, of San Francisco’s Gutride Safier firm, filed the first case, a nationwide class action, in April of 2018. Since then, that number has ballooned to over 30, and in the wake of new reports of contracted illnesses occurring almost daily, it is only expected to rise.

In response to the multitude of suits, Juul, whose headquarters is based in San Francisco, has countered by filing a motion asking the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation to send all the lawsuits to U.S. District Judge William Orrick of the Northern District of California. Attorney Gutride has stated his support for moving all cases to the San Francisco federal court, noting that, “They [the lawsuits] involve the same thing, which is that Juul unfairly and unlawfully marketed this product to young people without disclosing the severe risks of the product and, in addition, it had a defective product design that was likely to increase harm to users.”

Additionally, personal injury attorneys, Andy Birchfield and Joseph VanZandt, of the Beasley Allen firm filed a new lawsuit in San Francisco against Juul Labs on behalf of three plaintiffs in July. That suit claims that the plaintiffs developed severe nicotine addiction and other physical and mental health issues after using Juul products.

VanZandt stated that, “Juul knew what it was doing and was very intentional in creating a new generation of nicotine addicts, all while leading consumers to believe the products were safe.” He went on to say that, “Everything they [Juul] did, from designing the product, manipulating the nicotine, and marketing, was targeted at addicting young people…Before Juul, the public health community had spent decades working to drastically lower the rate of cigarette usage among minors, but Juul systematically unraveled decades of progress and sparked a new nicotine addiction epidemic. Juul must be held accountable.”

VanZandt has stated adamantly that he fully expects there to be hundreds, if not thousands, of individual cases filed in the near future. As the evolving saga plays out, expect personal injury attorneys in California to be continuously monitoring the situation.