Things keep getting worse for e-cigarette maker Juul Labs, Inc. In the midst of a wave of vaping illnesses sweeping the nation, the leading U.S. vaping company is under fire. Juul is currently the subject of a federal investigation and multiple lawsuits targeting its marketing practices to underage users. It has recently undergone a shakeup in its corporate leadership and faces a flurry of legislation at the state level attempting to restrict or ban its flavored “pods,” which have become wildly popular among America’s youth.
Now the mountain of mass-tort litigation Juul is facing will be consolidated in a multi-district litigation (MDL) in federal court in San Francisco, where the company is headquartered. Attorneys for Juul and for some of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits had requested an MDL in a hearing before the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation in Los Angeles, which decides if similar federal court cases around the country would best be handled in a single court.
In early October, the panel agreed to create an MDL and centralize all pending federal cases against Juul in the court of U.S. District Judge William Orrick of the Northern District of California, who was already overseeing a class-action lawsuit brought against Juul in 2018 by 44 plaintiffs from 22 states.
An MDL is different from a class-action, in which one or several named plaintiffs represent an entire class of known and unknown plaintiffs, which could reach into the thousands, in one litigation before one court. An MDL is created for judicial expediency in the pretrial process in cases where multiple lawsuits are brought against the same defendant over the same issues in different courts around the country. For instance, it is more efficient to have expert and other witnesses provide depositions once rather than hundreds of times, and for the admissibility of certain evidence to be decided on a single time rather than on an individual case-by-case basis.
Juul claimed it had been facing over 55 federal lawsuits in nearly 25 states. The suits variously accused the company of false advertising, failure to warn users of the addictive qualities of its products, and illegally targeting minors, among other causes of action.
Juul blamed for alarming spike in e-cig use among teens
Since Juul’s products burst on the scene several years ago, they have rapidly grown in popularity especially among teens and young adults, as well as older adults who were attempting to quit smoking tobacco. This is allegedly the result of the company’s aggressive marketing tactics stressing the health benefits and relative safety of vaping compared with tobacco smoking, as well as manufacturing its e-cigarette pods in refreshing, minty flavors designed to appeal to youth.
So many teens began vaping that by 2018, it had reversed a decades-long decline in youth smoking rates, with 3.6 million users. Just as quickly as vaping took off, health concerns began to arise over its effects as users became afflicted with various respiratory ailments, some requiring hospitalization.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 1,600 lung illnesses and 34 deaths nationwide have been linked to vaping products, although medical experts believe most of these cases could be related to illegal vaping products containing THC. In any case, Juul pods and other e-cigarette products have been found to contain many of the same dangerous toxins found in tobacco cigarettes, contrary to the company’s “safety” claims in its marketing literature.
The company is accused in the lawsuits of, among many other things, deliberately borrowing from Big Tobacco practices in packing its pods full of large amounts of nicotine in order to get users hooked quickly. Juul pods and other vaping products are believed to contain far more nicotine than the average tobacco cigarette. Nicotine is not only a known addictive substance, it raises blood pressure and heart rate and constricts blood vessels, putting users at risk for stroke and heart attacks, among other things. It is also believed by some medical experts to alter brain development in people under 25. Heavy nicotine intake can even result in seizures.
Juul accused by former exec of shipping contaminated products
Juul is also under scrutiny for its relationship with the tobacco industry. In 2018, Altria Group, parent company of Philip Morris, purchased a $13-billion stake in the e-cigarette maker, making it Juul’s largest shareholder.
In one of the latest lawsuits brought by a former company executive, Juul is accused of shipping and selling nearly 1 million pods it knew were tainted or contaminated. The former employee claims the company retaliated against him when he raised concerns about it.
Juul recently announced it plans to lay off 500 employees before the end of 2019 and suspend sales of its flavored products and its U.S. advertising. Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering implementing a ban on all flavored e-cigarettes.
The case is: In re Juul Labs Inc., Marketing Sales Practices and Product Liability Litigation, MDL2913, U.S. Judicial Panel on Multi-District Litigation.