Recent years have seen a steady decline in tobacco use in the U.S., while a new form of nicotine consumption called "vaping" has been on the rise. One of the most popular vaping (or e-cigarette) products is JUUL, made by Juul Labs, Inc., and a number of consumers (including teens) have alleged that their serious health problems can be linked to use of JUUL.
Let's take a look at the legal basis for these JUUL e-cigarette claims, how lawsuits are progressing, and the 2022 U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decision to order Juul Labs, Inc.'s vaping products off the market.
In order to successfully sue a company for injuries caused by a dangerous or defective product, an individual has to prove that he or she suffered "damages" (a legal term for losses or harm), and that the product manufacturer (and/or some other entity in the supply chain) is legally responsible for those damages.
Most plaintiffs are going to experience symptoms of a vaping-related illness that might include:
Along with health problems (and ensuing medical bills and any lost income), damages in a vaping/e-cigarette case can include "pain and suffering" and other more subjective effects stemming from the nature and extent of the plaintiff's injuries.
In addition to showing harm, an e-cigarette user will have to show that the maker of the vaping product somehow broke the law, breached a legal duty, or engaged in wrongful conduct. Examples of possible wrongful conduct by an e-cigarette company include:
Often, a tricky issue for plaintiffs is proving that the unlawful conduct of an e-cigarette company was the proximate cause of their injuries or health problems. The lack of information on the long-term effects of vaping, combined with the fact that many e-cigarette users were also users of tobacco cigarettes, can make proving liability a challenge.
This is why some law firms representing clients harmed by vaping will only take on clients who were less than 18 years of age when they started using JUUL or another vaping product. Other firms will only accept clients who have no other history of tobacco use. Learn more about suing for health problems caused by e-cigarettes and how lawyers decide whether to take a personal injury case.
In June 2022, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered Juul Labs, Inc. to stop selling its vaping products in the U.S. The company promptly appealed the decision, and a federal court agreed to place the order on hold until judicial review is complete.
The FDA's action came after the agency reviewed Juul Labs, Inc.'s most recent round of so-called "premarket tobacco product applications." The FDA determined that the company's applications "lacked sufficient evidence regarding the toxicological profile of the products to demonstrate that marketing of the products would be appropriate for the protection of the public health."
Learn more about how product recalls and market withdrawals affect a product liability lawsuit.
The first lawsuits against e-cigarette/vaping companies involved allegations of injury caused by exploding e-cigarettes, with some plaintiffs making large recoveries in court.
For example, in October 2015, a jury awarded a California woman about $1.9 million from the distributor, wholesaler, and seller of an e-cigarette that malfunctioned while she was charging it in her car. The battery exploded and the plaintiff suffered second-degree burns on her hands, legs, and buttocks.
Lately, the bulk of e-cigarette litigation revolves around Juul Labs, Inc., Altria Group Inc. (formerly Philip Morris Companies Inc.) and other vaping product manufacturers misrepresenting the dangers of their products through deceptive marketing. Plaintiffs also claim that Juul Labs, Inc., Altria, and others specifically targeted teens, including those too young to legally buy e-cigarette products.
Juul has agreed to pay Washington $22.5 million to settle the state's claims that the company designed and marketed its products so they would appeal to minors, and that Juul lied about the addictive nature of its e-cigarettes, according to the Washington State Office of the Attorney General.
As part of the deal, Juul will be required to conduct an ongoing "secret shopper" program in the state of Washington, to determine whether retailers are properly keeping Juul products away from underage consumers.
A formidable array of states, counties, school districts, and other entities have filed lawsuits against Juul and other e-cigarette manufacturers in recent years, alleging that the companies intentionally target teens, and make deceptive claims about the safety of their products.
On June 28, 2021, Juul agreed to pay $40 million to settle the state of North Carolina's allegations that the company was to blame for teen use of (and addiction to) vaping products. Among other actions aimed at curbing underage use of JUUL, the deal requires the company to stop advertising to anyone under the age of 21, and to take steps to ensure that its products aren't sold to underage customers.
On March 1, 2021, the Federal Trade Commission ordered Juul, R.J. Reynolds, and three other e-cigarette manufacturers to turn over a wide swath of information on their advertising and promotional spending, including details on product giveaways, product placement, and outreach practices on social media and on college campuses.
The largest consolidation of vaping-related lawsuits is a multi-district litigation (MDL) action being heard in federal court in California. One of the most notable (and novel) allegations is the MDL is the claim that, in marketing and selling e-cigarette products, the companies violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. "RICO" is a federal law passed in 1970 in an effort to eradicate organized crime.
Less than thrilled to find themselves in the distinguished company of the Mafia and other targets of RICO, Juul Labs Inc. and Altria, and other defendants in the MDL asked U.S. District Court Judge William H. Orrick (who is overseeing the federal case) to block these kinds of claims, and in October 2020 the judge agreed to do so, though he left the door open for the plaintiffs to fix or "amend" the RICO claims.
The judge's decision could represent a crucial stage in litigation over the safety of JUUL and other e-cigarette/vaping products. That's because, if the RICO claims are allowed to proceed, any verdict against the manufacturers could see them paying triple damages, plus the plaintiffs' attorneys fees. That would obviously serve as massive motivation for the defendants to talk settlement. We'll see whether the plaintiffs can retool their RICO claims to Judge Orrick's satisfaction.
The state of Colorado filed a lawsuit against Juul Labs, Inc., accusing the company of violating the Colorado Consumer Protection Act by intentionally marketing JUUL to young people, while misrepresenting it as a healthy alternative to cigarettes.
The plaintiffs in at least one ongoing federal lawsuit filed against Juul Labs, Inc. (and Altria Group Inc., which recently purchased a 35-percent stake in Juul Labs, Inc.) added allegations that JUULusers are at enhanced risk of suffering more severe complications if they end up contracting the coronavirus. Get more details on the impact of coronavirus on injury cases involving respiratory illness.
The vast majority of lawsuits involving Juul Labs Inc. and other vaping product manufacturers probably haven't been filed yet.
If you're thinking about taking legal action over the safety of JUUL or another e-cigarette product, keep in mind that diagnosis of a vaping-related health problem is often a key threshold to clear before filing a lawsuit. For information tailored to your situation, learn how to find the right attorney for your vaping/e-cigarette lawsuit.
Need a lawyer? Start here.