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Illinois Supreme Court Sides with Philip Morris — Again

The Illinois Supreme Court has once again ruled in favor of tobacco giant Philip Morris. The decision, announced Wednesday, saves the company from a $10.1 billion judgment.

The case has been before the court off and on for more than a decade. A group of smokers say Philip Morris tricked them into thinking “light” cigarettes were safer than regular.

The Supreme Court already threw out the record award in 2005. But a few years ago, the smokers went to a trial judge and tried to revive the case. They say the Supreme Court got the facts wrong in its decision 10 years ago.

But the justices, on a 4-2 vote, said that was the wrong procedure.

"The circuit court was asked to do something it does not have the authority to do — vacate a judgment of a higher court," Justice Anne Burke wrote for the majority. "Accordingly, the circuit court erred in considering the merits of plaintiffs’ ... petition."

Justice Charles Freeman, quoting himself from a decade ago, issued a stinging dissent:

"In our original Price decision, the manner in which this court reversed plaintiffs’ judgment led me to the troubling conclusion that this court had 'become increasingly desensitized to the interests of the average Illinois consumer,' and that the decision would 'send a chill wind over consumer protection.'”

Altria, the parent corporation of Philip Morris, touted its subsidiary's success in fighting such lawsuits.

“Today’s action by the Illinois Supreme Court effectively wipes away the last seven years of court proceedings and requires the plaintiffs to start from scratch,” Altria's Murray Garnick said in a prepared statement.

“The court held that the plaintiffs filed the wrong motion in the wrong court. Now to succeed, plaintiffs would have to file a new motion in the Illinois Supreme Court and convince at least four justices to recall their own order, which dismissed the case 10 years ago.”

Attorney George Zelcs, who represents the smokers, said he’s still digesting the opinion: “In one word: ‘disappointed’ is the word I would use."

Zelcs said his team is weighing its next move.

Brian Mackey covers Illinois state government and politics from the WUIS Statehouse bureau. He was previously A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. He can be reached at (217) 206-6020.