Reports of respiratory disease and other serious health problems linked to vaping and e-cigarettes have placed companies like Juul Labs Inc. (manufacturer of JUUL®) in the media spotlight, but it's important for consumers to understand the legal issues at play before making a JUUL®/e-cigarette claim.
Mere use of JUUL® or some other e-cigarette/vaping product is not usually enough of a legal basis for the filing of a civil lawsuit against a manufacturer of these products. The combination of having used e-cigarettes and experiencing related health problems, however, can lead to a viable case. And if you think you're experiencing health problems related to any e-cigarette/vaping product, a clear medical diagnosis is typically crucial to showing that you're entitled to financial compensation.
In any personal injury or product liability case, including lawsuits over the safety of e-cigarettes and vaping products, the specifics of the plaintiff’s health problems are critical. They shape the value of the case, making an accurate diagnosis essential.
Diagnosis goes straight to the nature and extent of the plaintiff’s losses ("damages" in legalese). A JUUL®/vaping case almost always includes both "economic" damages (covering the cost of medical treatment, lost income, and other quantifiable losses) and "non-economic" damages (applying to pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, and similar, more subjective consequences of the plaintiff's health problems). (Learn more about damages in an injury case.)
When faced with a lawsuit over the safety of a product, manufacturers like Juul Labs Inc. typically argue that the plaintiff doesn't actually have any health problems that can be linked to use of the product, or that the plaintiff’s condition is attributable to some other cause.
For example, in April 2020, plaintiffs in at least one federal lawsuit against Juul Labs, Inc. added allegations that JUUL® users are at enhanced risk of suffering more serious complications if they end up contracting the coronavirus. (Get more details on the impact of coronavirus on injury cases involving respiratory illness.) That's a viable allegation to make if your vaping-related health problems are already diagnosed and documented. But if you've yet to file a vaping/e-cigarette case (or you've sued but haven't been properly diagnosed with a condition that can be linked to your use of a vaping product), and you end up developing a separate respiratory condition like a coronavirus infection, your vaping case will face an uphill climb. How can you prove that your lung/respiratory problems were caused by a vaping product, and not by coronavirus?
This is all part of why early and accurate diagnosis is so important to any JUUL®/vaping case—an undiagnosed condition, an inaccurate diagnosis, or a delay in pinpointing the plaintiff's health problems makes it much easier for the defense to argue that the plaintiff's claimed harm did not come from use of the product.
Laws called "statutes of limitations" set time limits on the right to file a lawsuit. Since health problems linked to e-cigarettes and vaping products can progress gradually, it's not always clear when the plaintiff's "injury" actually occurred for purposes of the filing deadline.
In some states (like California), the date the person knew (or should have known in the eyes of the law) that their injuries were related to a defective product is typically the start of the statutory time period. In JUUL®/vaping cases, this could be the date on which the plaintiff was diagnosed with a respiratory disease or some other specific condition. (Conditions associated with e-cigarettes also include strokes, seizures, heart problems, and kidney problems.) But other factors can influence when the statute of limitations "clock" is said to start. In some jurisdictions, that the plaintiff became or should have become aware of the injury is what matters—not their potential or actual knowledge of the cause of that harm. Product manufacturers have also been known to argue that the onset of symptoms (not necessarily a clear diagnosis) is enough to start the statute of limitations "clock" in certain cases, and some courts have agreed.
Bottom line: If you wait too long to file your lawsuit, you might be barred from pursuing a civil case over vaping. An extension of the deadline might be possible, but you should consult a lawyer as soon as you begin to think about whether you have a viable case.
Many states have a specific statute of limitations for product liability lawsuits, while in other jurisdictions the limitations period for general personal injury lawsuits will apply. Either way, the filing deadline in most states ranges from one to six years for a lawsuit over health problems caused by JUUL® or another vaping product. For details on how the statute of limitations affects your situation, talk to a lawyer.
Most lawyers will not start a lawsuit over the safety of a product like JUUL® until they have confirmed that a possible client has developed a respiratory disease or some other specific health problem that could be linked to use of the product. (Learn more about why a lawyer might turn down your injury case.)
Some attorneys will arrange for a health assessment for potential clients whose history includes extensive use of e-cigarettes. Other times attorneys will order medical records from the potential client’s doctor or hospital and send the material to medical experts for evaluation of the nature and extent of the injuries.
If your doctor does not think you have a health issue related to your use of JUUL® or a similar product, but a lawyer's medical expert thinks you do, you can take the expert’s report to your own doctor for a follow-up exam, or seek a second opinion from a different doctor.
A lawyer who has decided to take your case will determine which defendant(s) to sue and then file a "complaint" in court. The complaint is the legal document that starts the lawsuit and asks for damages from the defendant. (Note that a lawsuit doesn't always need to be filed; any product liability lawsuit can settle out of court, at any time. See the timeline of a typical personal injury claim.)
Next, the case moves into the "discovery" phase, when both sides gather evidence. Your lawyer might need to order additional medical documentation for retained experts to review. Your lawyer's medical experts might also examine you.
Defendants are usually entitled to see whatever medical information the plaintiff’s lawyer has that’s relevant to the case. If you have a case, your lawyer will probably need to provide the defense with a list of facilities where you've been examined or treated. The plaintiff’s lawyer usually hands over this kind of information as "answers to interrogatories," part of the discovery phase.
When the defense attorneys decide they want to look at specific medical records the plaintiff’s lawyer hasn’t already provided, the plaintiff often has to give authorization allowing the release of further medical information. Because of privacy regulations, each authorization must be specific to the facility, so the plaintiff might have to sign a lot of forms.
Sometimes the defense asks for medical information by issuing a subpoena to a facility. If they take this route, they have to notify the plaintiff’s attorney. If the request is for something inappropriate or irrelevant, the attorney can try to block the subpoena or review records first to protect the plaintiff’s privacy.
Normally, the defense can also have its own medical expert examine the plaintiff. This step is called an "independent medical examination." The plaintiff’s attorney helps arrange such an exam and should protect the client from any improprieties, such as medical tests that aren’t related to the plaintiff’s claims.
If you have an e-cigarette case, and it gets to the point of a deposition (or even trial), the defense will ask you about your health, your diagnosis, and your treatment. Sometimes plaintiffs’ deposition (and trial) answers differ from their written answers to interrogatories because of a mistake in memory. These small discrepancies are normal and extremely unlikely to affect the plaintiff’s case. If you have a case, you don't need to prove that your diagnosis is correct or even understand the medical details; expert witnesses will weigh in on those subjects.
If you’re considering filing a lawsuit over JUUL® or another vaping product, you should consult an attorney as soon as reasonably possible. An experienced lawyer will be able to explain the law as it applies to your situation.