Judge rules State’s case against Juul and Altria will proceed to trial on March 27

In order issued this week, Court rejected defendants’ latest efforts to dismiss State’s claims

State alleges e-cigarette giant Juul, enabled by Altria, engaged in consumer fraud, negligence, and created a public nuisance; Minnesota to be first state to go to trial

March 16, 2023 (SAINT PAUL) — The Hennepin County judge overseeing the State of Minnesota’s three-year lawsuit against e-cigarette manufacturer Juul and tobacco giant Altria issued an order late on Tuesday, March 14 rejecting defendants’ latest attempts to weaken or dismiss the State’s claims. The ruling sets the stage for a three-week trial to begin before a jury of Hennepin County residents on March 27. Minnesota will be the first case against Juul to go to trial since over a dozen states sued the company beginning in 2019. Attorney General Keith Ellison first filed the State’s lawsuit against Juul in December 2019

“When I announced this lawsuit more than three years ago, I said that my job was to protect Minnesotans from deceptive sales and to protect their health and safety, especially our youth. Just as this duty led Attorney General Skip Humphrey to take on Big Tobacco three decades ago, it compelled me take on the next generation of misleading and youth-oriented sales tactics,” Attorney General Ellison said. “With the Court’s ruling, we are going to trial on March 27. We will prove how Juul and Altria deceived and hooked a generation of Minnesota youth on their products, causing both great harm to the public and great expense to the State to remediate that harm.”  

Minnesota’s claims against Juul and Altria 

The State’s 2019 lawsuit detailed how Juul developed sleek devices and flavors that were designed to appeal to youth, and how Juul’s youth-oriented marketing deceptively lured and addicted young people. In 2017, the Department of Health reported that nearly 90 percent of Minnesota teens had seen at least one advertisement for vaping in the last 30 days. 

The State’s lawsuit also asserts that Juul failed to adequately verify its customers’ ages, as required by Minnesota law, and deliberately turned a blind eye to Minnesota children’s purchase and use of its products. 

In the wake of this alleged deceptive conduct, the lawsuit alleges Juul became the leader of the e-cigarette market. From just 2017 to 2018, Juul’s revenues grew 800 percent. Its share of the e-cigarette market grew in just two years from one-quarter of the market in 2017 to three-quarters of the market in 2019. By 2019, Juul had grown to a value of $38 billion. 

At the same time, tobacco use rose dramatically among Minnesota youth. As the complaint alleges, in 2019, MDH reported on the alarming rise of youth vaping in the prior three years:   

The rise in youth use poses a significant public-health threat – e-cigarette use among adolescents is highly dangerous. Studies show that adolescent tobacco use is associated with the risk of developing major mental-health disorders. Young people are also at a higher risk of nicotine addiction than adults because their brains are not fully formed until age 25. 

Altria’s role 

In December 2020, the State amended its complaint against Juul to add tobacco conglomerate Altria as a defendant for its role in supporting Juul’s marketing and furthering its reach. Altria is the third-largest tobacco company in the world by sales and market value. In October 2018, Altria announced it was removing its pod-based e-cigarette products from the market, professing to the FDA that “we believe that pod-based products significantly contribute to the rise in youth use of e-vapor products,” and that “underage use of e-vapor products is further compounded by flavors in these products.”   

Just two months later, however, Altria entered into a $12.8-billion acquisition of 35% of Juul, the market leader in pod based and flavored products, and the most popular e-cigarette brand among youth. 

The State’s amended lawsuit alleges that as part of the deal, Altria assisted Juul in the sale, marketing, and promotion of Juul’s products, which included providing Juul access to Altria’s prime retail “shelf space,” and its vast sales force. Altria also included Juul advertisements in Altria cigarette packs known to be most popular among youth, including its Marlboro products, and leveraged its vast tobacco database to engage in direct e-mail and mail advertisements to Minnesota consumers.   

The State’s lawsuit alleges that these and other actions vastly extended Juul’s reach in Minnesota, especially to Minnesota youth. And while Altria recently divested itself of its Juul investment — and now is in talks to buy another vaping company — Altria cannot avoid responsibility for the damage it caused in Minnesota. 

Court ruling means Minnesota will proceed to trial on March 27 as first trial in U.S. against Juul and Altria 

The Court’s ruling late on Tuesday, March 14 denying Juul’s and Altria’s motions for summary judgment means Minnesota will proceed to trial on March 27 as the first state to go to trial against Juul and Altria for their role in the continuing vaping epidemic.  

Particularly notable in the Court’s order is its rejection of Juul’s arguments to dismiss the State’s claim that Juul created a public nuisance. While Juul cited case law from other states, in denying Juul’s motion the court noted that “Juul provided no Minnesota authority that supports its narrow interpretation of the public nuisance cause of action.” Rather, the court found that “Minnesota precedent establishes a more expansive range for public nuisance claims than the narrow range defined in other states by the courts relied upon by Defendants.” The Court recognized the State’s evidence in support of its nuisance claims and found the existence of a nuisance “a quintessential fact question” to be tried. The Court also found the State’s evidence sufficient to establish at trial its claims for public nuisance, negligence, and unjust enrichment.  

The Court also rejected Altria’s attempts to sidestep liability, citing a State expert’s opinions that Altria “was very aware of JUUL’s attraction to youth, yet committed its vast resources to expanding JUUL use in Minnesota.” The Court also noted other evidence that “shows that during the relevant period, JUUL’s advertisements and packaging omitted material facts regarding the cessation efficacy, addictive qualities, health risks and safety of JUUL products.” Ultimately, the Court found that it “will be up to the jury to decide whether Altria is liable to some extent for the injury claimed by the State.” 

Jury selection will begin on March 27 and the trial will conclude by April 14.