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(LEAD) Appellate court turns down damages suit over tobacco danger

All Headlines 15:23 February 15, 2011

(ATTN: UPDATES with comments from plaintiffs, KT&G in the last four paras)
By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, Feb. 15 (Yonhap) -- A Seoul appellate court Tuesday upheld a lower court decision that rejected appeals by ailing smokers in the first legal fight against the nation's largest tobacco company about the dangers of cigarette smoking that has stretched more than a decade.

A group of 31 lung cancer patients and their families launched the damages suit in 1999 against the state and KT&G, arguing long-time smoking caused their fatal disease and that the company did not fulfill its duty to inform them of the dangers of smoking by concealing most of its manufacturing records.

"Although the court does acknowledge a connection between smoking and lung cancer, there are no sufficient grounds to prove the defendants' illegal conduct in detail," the Seoul High Court said in a ruling. "Although this case did not ask the company to take the legal responsibility, the ruling left room for future damages suits to additionally prove the harmful effects of smoking case by case."

The court also urged the tobacco companies to put more effort into establishing clinics and anti-smoking campaigns as they make money by "holding public health hostage."

The plaintiffs argued that the company defrauded the public by falsely denying the adverse health effects of smoking, concealing evidence that nicotine is addictive and lying about their manipulation of nicotine in cigarettes to create addiction.

After taking nearly seven years to deliberate on the case, the Seoul Central District Court in January 2007 rejected the plaintiffs' claim, citing insufficient evidence to prove a direct link between their disease and smoking as well as flawed products. The court said KT&G did not violate its obligation as it has attached a warning message on its cigarette packs since the 1970s.

Four patients have died since the suit was filed and 27 plaintiffs are currently fighting the legal battle.

The attorney for the plaintiffs, Bae Geum-ja, showed strong disappointment and said she would bring the case to the Supreme Court.

"We are very disappointed by the ruling that does not ask the company to compensate for sufferings by the plaintiffs and their families," Bae told reporters. "The court ruled in favor of a company that causes damage to people's lives."

KT&G welcomed the court decision, while refuting the court's judgment that acknowledged the causal relationship between smoking and the plaintiffs' disease.

"Due to this suit, KT&G has suffered damage for more than 12 years from being portrayed as a company that produces problematic products," the company said in an emailed statement. "We hope this case can wipe out such image and that the plaintiffs stop seeking meaningless litigation in the future."


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