SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Despite a slew of efforts by the defendants, a federal judge has advanced a lawsuit filed by San Francisco Unified School District against Altria, the sixth largest tobacco company in the world.
The school district is just one of many plaintiffs who have sued Juul Labs for marketing its vape pens and related products to youth. Altria, in turn, is just one of several defendants identified by plaintiffs In re Juul Labs Inc. Marketing, Sales Practices and Products Liability Litigation. Monday's ruling, however, dealt specifically with the school district's suit against Juul Labs Inc. and, by extension, Altria.
U.S. District Judge William Orrick denied several motions Monday by the tobacco giant beginning with its attempt to challenge the school district's right to file a public nuisance claim against Juul Labs Inc. and Altria because the impact of their products and marketing, they said, could not be shown to be be injurious to the district and because SFUSD had not been authorized by any other laws under Civil Code § 3494, which allows any public bodies or officers to pursue action.
"These arguments are weighty and could dramatically impact the scope of damages or nature of abatement to which SFUSD might be entitled if the jury finds Altria liable for nuisance," Orrick wrote before saying that, at a minimum, the school district not only has the authorization, but "has sufficient evidence of injury to its property at this juncture to proceed with its nuisance claim."
The school district also put forward plenty of "sufficient disputed facts to show that Altria had a duty to SFUSD," he wrote, noting that similar arguments had already been rejected at the motion to dismiss stage "and no undisputed evidence presented by defendants undermines those conclusions."
And SFUSD has offered evidence of students using Juul products and Juul's far reaching use of social media and other marketing tools "that Altria allegedly knew had, and would continue to reach school-aged youth" in San Francisco. Altria wasn't just an investor in these efforts, Orrick said, but "substantially directed or aided in the injurious activities that continued to cause harm" to the school district.
Orrick also left open the subject of damages, saying "It remains plausible damages are inadequate" after pointing out that SFUSD has produced plenty of sufficient but disputed evidence of damage to its property as defined by California law to make it through summary judgment. Just how strong the links between Altria's role in marketing and promotion and the damage to the school district "are subject to material facts," Orrick said.
"There is sufficient, material disputed evidence of the parties’ alleged patten of RICO conduct to survive summary judgment," Orrick said. In nearly all the instances noted by Orrick were points that he said could be addressed post-trial, such as how broadly the definition of property extends.
Parties from neither side responded immediately to requests for comment.
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