The California Supreme Court Thursday made it easier for people with smoking-related illnesses to sue tobacco companies.
The court unanimously ruled that if a person develops two or more diseases from the same cause, such as smoking tobacco, there is a separate statute of limitations for each illness.
The panel issued its ruling in San Francisco in the case of Nikki Pooshs, a Sacramento woman who is seriously ill with lung cancer.
Pooshs, now in her 70s, smoked cigarettes for 34 years from 1953 through 1987.
She developed three illnesses allegedly related to her smoking: obstructive pulmonary disease, diagnosed in 1989; periodontal disease, diagnosed in the early 1990s; and lung cancer, discovered in 2003.
Pooshs did not file any lawsuits over the first two illnesses, but in 2004 sued several tobacco companies for the lung cancer. The lawsuit started out in San Francisco Superior Court, but was transferred to federal court by the companies.
The tobacco firms, led by Philip Morris USA Inc., argued that the Pooshs had missed the two-year deadline for filing such lawsuits because the alleged harm began with her first two illnesses.
But the state high court said there was a separate deadline, or statute of limitations, for each disease.
Justice Joyce Kennard wrote, "No good reason appears to require plaintiff, who years ago suffered a smoking-related disease that is not lung cancer, to sue at that time for lung cancer damages based on speculative possibility that lung cancer might later arise."
The court added that trial proceedings must determine whether the illnesses were truly separate.
The case now goes back to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which had asked the state high court to rule on how California law on the statute of limitations applied to the case. Lloyd Leroy, a lawyer for Pooshs, said the case will eventually return to U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton in Oakland for a trial.
"It's a wonderful decision and it does have significant impact," Leroy said.
He said the ruling will apply not only to tobacco cases but also to other cases in which people may develop more than one disease from exposure to substances such as toxic chemicals or asbestos.
Philip Morris issued a statement saying, "Although we are disappointed with the decision, the California Supreme Court made it clear that it was not addressing the merits of this case or any case.
"Rather, the decision addresses a narrow technical point of law relating to the statute of limitations. The decision would be relevant only in a very small fraction of cases filed," the company said.