Lawsuit includes allegations that JUUL and Altria deliberately targeted vulnerable native populations
Lieff Cabraser and its co-counsel, Zwerling Schachter & Zwerling LLP, have filed a federal lawsuit in the Northern District of California on behalf of the California Yurok Tribe against JUUL and Altria for violations of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”) and California negligence and nuisance laws. The Complaint in the lawsuit alleges the companies’ efforts to maximize profits through the creation and native-youth-targeted marketing of its new electronic nicotine delivery product predictably led to an epidemic of teen addiction within the Yurok Tribe, the social and economic costs of which were shouldered by the Tribe as the government entity responsible for the public health and safety of the local population.
“The Yurok Tribe is the largest federally-recognized tribe in California,” notes Lieff Cabraser partner Eric B. Fastiff, who filed the suit on behalf of the Tribe, “and its ability to carry out essential public health functions has been, and continues to be, profoundly threatened by the e-cigarette health epidemic that JUUL and Altria’s actions have created.”
The Complaint alleges that JUUL and Altria designed electronic cigarette products to create and sustain addiction, particularly among young people, coupled those dangerous products with native-youth-targeted marketing programs intended to create an entire new generation of nicotine-addicted customers, and thrived due to extensive and successful efforts to delay any meaningful regulation of their products.
The Complaint further notes that the JUUL epidemic disproportionately impacts Native American and Alaska Native communities and young members of tribes across the U.S. “Though nationwide in its scope, the effect of the health crisis created by JUUL and Altria is exacerbated by numerous factors specific to Native American communities, including historical trauma, high poverty, deficient health care services, and lack of adequate housing, all of which make tribal communities particularly susceptible to health problems.”
“I’ve spent most of my career successfully fighting the tobacco companies for their lethal practices,” notes Lieff Cabraser partner Kenneth Byrd, who also represents the Tribe, “and having them resume their child-centered addiction efforts via a slick new technology was something we thought our efforts through the 1990s and 2000s would prevent.”
The Complaint alleges that JUUL and Altria specifically and deceptively targeted and exploited Native American communities with its highly addictive and damaging products. It sought to implement “switching programs” and sales partnerships with numerous tribes by directly seeking to take advantage of a vulnerable American Indian population with its deceptive and misleading sales and marketing practices. JUUL and Altria created this e-cigarette health epidemic for their own financial gain, causing Indian tribes across the United States, and the geographic area surrounding the Yurok Tribe in particular, to be flooded with JUUL products, creating an environment where these products and their use and abuse are rampant.
The Yurok Tribe seeks injunctive relief, abatement, and damages arising out of the injuries to its members, property, and employees caused by JUUL’s and Altria’s wrongful conduct in the marketing and sale of their JUUL products.
In addition to the RICO claims, the lawsuit includes causes of action for negligence, negligence per se, and violations of California public nuisance law. The suit seeks orders enjoining JUUL and Altria from engaging in further actions violating the law, and actual, compensatory, and statutory damages, as well as equitable relief to fund prevention education and addiction treatment.
Eric B. Fastiff
Mark P. Chalos
Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP