Wednesday, January 27, 1999

Judge rejects
isle health fund
tobacco claim

He says members have
other ways to pursue

Staff and wire reports


A federal judge has dismissed a Hawaii union and management health fund's lawsuit against big tobacco companies.

Senior U.S. Judge Sam King ruled that the Hawaii Health & Welfare Trust Fund for Operating Engineers should not recover damages for its members' smoking-related medical problems.

Other Hawaii funds were committed to joining the case -- essentially the same as others filed across the country -- if King hadn't dismissed it, said James Tam, an attorney for the fund.

The health fund, set up through collective bargaining with contributions from management, sued Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. and other tobacco companies in 1997.

Other such funds across the country did the same, claiming that smoking-related illnesses were draining out money that could have been available to cover other illnesses.

King ruled on Monday that the health plans couldn't make a legitimate claim for damages on behalf of their members.

Noting the recent settlement in suits by states, including Hawaii, King ruled that the members had other avenues to pursue their claims and that the trust funds were not the right vehicle.

The State of Hawaii has been awarded $1.1 billion as its share of a $206 billion settlement with Brown & Williamson, Philip Morris Companies Inc. and others.

The case by Hawaii and the other states, claiming they should be reimbursed for state medical assistance to smokers, was similar to the health funds' argument.

King ruled that the health funds are at least one step away from direct injury.

"The courts' concern is, where do you draw the line," Tam said today.

About half the similar cases across the country have been dismissed and half allowed to proceed as judges decide who the injured party is, Tam said.

A mainland attorney, working on the Hawaii case and several others, said he is likely to file an appeal against King's decision.

Brown & Williamson called King's ruling "an unmistakable sign that such contrived cases have no merit and are not only a waste of the courts' time but taxpayers' money."

Star-Bulletin reporter Russ Lynch and
Bloomberg News contributed to this story.

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