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Wilson Signs Bill Allowing Suits Against Tobacco Firms

September 30, 1997|DAVE LESHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation Monday that allows individuals to sue the tobacco industry for illnesses caused by smoking.

The bill by state Sen. Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco) removes a legal protection that was granted to tobacco companies during the infamous "napkin deal" struck by legislators huddled at night at a Capitol restaurant in 1987.

At the time, lawmakers had reasoned that health risks associated with tobacco were so well-known that smokers should be responsible for the risks involved.

On Monday, however, Wilson sided with the increasingly popular notion that the industry--not the consumer--should be responsible for tobacco's health effects.

"Too many Californians have suffered and died from tobacco-related illnesses," Wilson said. "From now on, all tobacco-related injury claims can be decided by the courts based on the merits of the case."

Earlier this year, Wilson signaled that he would sign the Kopp bill (SB 67) if it were amended to exempt retailers and distributors. The governor said it was inappropriate to hold "mom-and-pop" store owners liable for health risks of cigarettes.

Kopp agreed and supported the amendment.

Wilson's action helps clear the way for California to participate in a major national settlement being negotiated with the tobacco industry. Only states that have laws allowing court actions against the tobacco industry are eligible.

Kopp's bill was the toughest of three measures that the Legislature passed this year to remove lawsuit protections that have been enjoyed by the tobacco industry in California.

Early last summer, the governor signed a bill by Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno) that allowed state and local governments to sue tobacco companies for recovery of smoking-related public health costs.

One measure, by state Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford), is still pending on Wilson's desk. It would allow lawsuits by individuals claiming injury from secondhand smoke or on grounds of fraud, misrepresentation and conspiracy by tobacco companies.

A Wilson aide declined to speculate on whether the governor will sign the Sher bill.

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