Eight lawsuits accusing JUUL Labs of striking an anti-competitive deal that saw a rival wind down its vape device business in exchange for an ownership stake in the vaping giant were related to each other by a California federal judge. U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick made the decision to connect the cases, but held off on sweeping them into the larger multidistrict litigation (MDL) against JUUL and onetime rival Altria Group while the court mulls whether antitrust cases belong in the MDL concerning JUUL’s marketing and sales tactics. Judge Orrick said:
That issue is more complex and is currently under consideration by me. For purposes of efficiency and until the issue of whether the JUUL MDL will encompass antitrust claims is resolved, I find that each of the antitrust cases identified above should be related to the lowest numbered Reece action.
JUUL is already defending more than 500 suits accusing the vaping giant of marketing its popular products to teenagers, and those claims have roped tobacco behemoth Altria into the litigation as well. Altria bought a 35% stake in JUUL back in 2018 for a whopping $12.8 billion, a deal that has since lost billions in value, and many of the MDL suits aim to hold the company partially liable for JUUL’s activities. That deal has played a prominent role in the litigation so far, sparking allegations that the tie-up was motivated by a desire on JUUL’s part to rid itself of a burgeoning rival in the vape arena.
The eight suits joined together by Judge Orrick all make similar antitrust claims against the smoking giants. The Federal Trade Commission has also gone after the companies, saying in an administrative complaint announced last month that the deal has stunted competition in the vaping industry. Judge Orrick has been considering whether to fold the antitrust suits, largely brought by consumers, into the larger MDL dealing with questions of product liability and teen sales.
Plaintiff Douglas Reece, who filed the first of the antitrust class actions that were before the court Thursday, has been pushing to have his suit included in the MDL, citing overlapping discovery from Defendants. But JUUL has been fighting to keep the matters separate, arguing there is no reason to combine litigation over two separate subject matters into one proceeding.
Reece is represented by Barrett Beasley of Salim Beasley; Michael M. Buchman, Michelle C. Clerkin, Joseph F. Rice and William H. Narwold of Motley Rice LLC and John Alden Meade of Meade Young LLC. The case is Reece v. Altria Group Inc. et al., (case number 3:20-cv-02345) in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
Beasley Allen lawyers Joseph VanZandt and Sydney Everett, together with Mass Torts Section Head Andy Birchfield, are currently representing several individuals who are suing the top U.S. vape maker JUUL for the negative impact its products have had on their lives. They also have filed lawsuits on behalf of school districts nationwide, which seek to protect students and recover resources spent fighting the vaping epidemic.