An Illinois appellate court has revived a light cigarette class-action suit against Philip Morris in which plaintiffs allege that the company’s deceptive advertising harmed them by conveying that “light” and “low tar or nicotine” cigarettes were safer than average cigarettes.

In 2003 a trial court awarded $10.1 billion to the plaintiffs, who claimed that Philip Morris violated the state’s Consumer Fraud Act by using deceptive marketing to advertise its “light” and “low tar or nicotine” cigarettes.

The tobacco company appealed, arguing that the use of the terms “light” and “low tar” had been authorized by the Federal Trade Commission. It relied on two consent decrees in enforcement actions the agency had brought against other cigarette manufacturers.

The Illinois Supreme Court reversed the verdict in 2005, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied the plaintiffs’ petition for certiorari.

But on December 15, 2008, the justices explicitly rejected the defense used by Philip Morris in the Illinois case and found that the FTC “itself disavows any policy authorizing the use of ‘light’ and ‘low tar’ descriptors” in Altria Group, Inc. v. Good.

Three days later the Illinois plaintiffs filed a petition for relief from judgment under a special provision of state civil procedure, arguing that the Good decision undermined the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision.

A trial court disagreed, holding that the statute of limitations on such a petition had expired. The appellate court reversed. The time limit began when the trial court’s final order dismissing the suit was entered, it said, and therefore the suit was timely.

“[W]hat the plaintiffs are alleging is essentially that there are facts which, if brought to the trial court’s attention during the original trial in this matter, would have caused the supreme court to rule differently in its December 2005 decision,” the court said. It remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

To read the Illinois appellate court’s decision in Price v. Philip Morris, click here.

To read the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Altria Group, Inc. v. Good, click here.

Why it matters: While the Illinois appellate court’s decision kept the suit alive, the plaintiffs still face several obstacles to achieve a repeat billion-dollar verdict, including an appeal by Philip Morris. “The court’s decision today was based solely on a procedural question around a timing issue and not the merits of the plaintiffs’ request to re-open this closed case,” Murray Garnick, associate general counsel for Philip Morris’s parent company, Altria Group, Inc., said in a statement. “This case ended in 2005 when the Illinois Supreme Court reversed the damages award against Philip Morris USA. Since that time, the plaintiffs have made multiple unsuccessful attempts to re-open the case. We believe that the plaintiffs’ latest attempt is equally without merit.”