Tony Gwynn Tobacco Lawsuit

Tony Gwynn was unequivocally the greatest player in San Diego Padres history. He pioneered the art of film study, led the team to two World Series appearances and in 2007, was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, he passed away much too soon, succumbing to salivary gland cancer. It’s no secret that this was widely attributed to his penchant for chewing tobacco.

Gwynn said he went through one-and-a-half to two cans per day, which is the equivalent of four to five packs of cigarettes, for 31 years. He started using it during his freshman year of college at San Diego State University, and now, two years after his death, his family is suing Altria, Inc. for “negligence, product liability and fraud,” which they claim caused Gwynn’s tragic death.

Why Is the Gwynn Family Suing Altria?

Altria is the parent company of Philip Morris, the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company and others. As a tobacco company, they obviously are faced with many lawsuits being filed at a rather frequent rate. However, there are a couple of things that make this case different: one, it’s high profile. No baseball player or their family has filed suit against a tobacco company. Two, it does not seek monetary damages. Many, upon first glance at the headline, would assume this to be the case, but the Gwynn family appears to be seeking to set a precedent.

Negligence laws in general vary by state, but in the case of holding a tobacco company liable for someone’s death, it addresses the irresponsibility on the part of the manufacturer. In relation to the Gwynn case, his family is arguing that he was not made aware of the risks of smokeless tobacco when he was specifically chosen to use the product as part of a marketing campaign targeting African Americans. This is known as negligent advertising, and is cited as part of the tobacco company’s “manipulation” of Gwynn to use their product.

When one reads the specific citations in regards to these claims, one can see that this is a legitimate complaint. It’s actually noted in the lawsuit that the defendants tried to hire students to sell the product by placing advertisements in the school paper, and even sponsored an intramural softball team at San Diego State, nicknamed “The Skoal Brothers,” which gave out free samples of the product. No warning was given that they were dangerous. Everyone assumed that smokeless tobacco was a much safer product, mainly because it was not made law until 1986 that smokeless tobacco products carry warning labels.

What Lawsuits Are Usually Filed Against Tobacco Companies?

Tobacco companies are sued all the time for a litany of reasons, and for lucrative sums of money. Before the late 1990s, it was very rare for one of these lawsuits to be successful, particularly in California. This was due to legislation passed in 1988 which protected tobacco manufacturers from liability lawsuits. However, in 2002 this law was, for the most part, reversed by the California Supreme Court. We say for the most part because the reversal did come with a statute of limitations: the tobacco companies were still protected from negligence and fraud claims occurring from 1988 through 1998, which was the year when the law was repealed.

Most of the time, lawsuits of this nature are now settled out of court. But two years ago, a landmark decision was handed down which struck a huge blow to the tobacco companies. R.J. Reynolds was told to pay $23.6 billion to Cynthia Robinson for her husband’s death, after it was decided that the company’s deceptive marketing strategy caused her husband to pick up the habit at the age of 13. R.J. Reynolds appealed, and the punitive damages were reduced to $16.9 million, as it was determined that the company was only 30 percent liable.

Marketing schemes and practices are the reason many of these lawsuits get filed. They promote fun, popularity and high-class without addressing health risks. Perhaps the biggest decision in any regard against tobacco companies was the United States v. Philip Morris(2006) Supreme Court case, which found that, among other things, Philip Morris misled the public about the risks of smoking and targeted the youth market, in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The targeting of the youth market has been a problem subsisting for decades, and appears to be coming to a head in the Gwynn family lawsuit.

The tobacco industry has long tried to make the argument that people act of their own volition; no one would sue Anheuser-Busch in the event of a drunk driving death. The reason these lawsuits are different is because the harmful effects were hidden – or at the very least minimized – and the advertising manipulated younger people to try it. Many lawsuits have been brought against beer companies for the exact same reason, especially for drinks such as Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Zima. Products intended only for use by adults cannot come out with colorful advertisements and mascots because it is seen as misleading.

Tobacco and Baseball

As Forrest Gump might say, tobacco and baseball always went together like peas and carrots. In the 40s, 50s and 60s, players could easily be seen smoking in the dugout between innings. Once chewing tobacco became popular, there were very few players who didn’t have a lump beneath their lip or cheek during the game. In the last few years, use has decreased dramatically and some stadiums have actually banned its use.

Considering that no monetary damages are being sought, this seems to be part of what the Gwynn family is after; a chewing tobacco ban effective at all MLB ballparks (it has been banned at all minor league affiliate ballparks since 1993). During the most recent collective bargaining agreement meetings between MLB and the Player’s Union, a ban on chewing tobacco was discussed but ultimately did not get anywhere.

Beyond chewing tobacco’s relation to baseball, the Gwynn family appears to want to completely change how the industry conducts business and addresses its marketing strategy. Most would agree that this has improved in the last few years, particularly with the industry’s seemingly direct attempts to appeal to children. The Joe Camel mascot got the axe for just this reason. The morality of the issue is certainly in play as well; ballplayers are role models, and children will emulate what they do, as evidenced by the bat-flipping epidemic.

This has continued to be a problem due to the evolving product line, specifically the flavored tobacco products in hookah and vape pens that have been increasing in popularity. No one thinks about lung defects when they see the words “cherry flavored” on a label for something. The dangers are masked, kids are encouraged to try it, and they become addicted to the chemicals in the product.

Tobacco has already been banned throughout the parks in California, but if the Gwynn family wins this lawsuit, more laws pertaining to purchase age, advertisements and warnings, along with the aforementioned ban in MLB ballparks, could very well be put in place. Which means that, at least in American professional sports, chewing tobacco could all but disappear from view, and tobacco companies could be faced with a flood of new lawsuits.

*Featured Image By ewen and donabel [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

B. Clausen

A graduate of the University of Kansas, Brian Clausen is the U.S. news reporter for Dopplr. Before joining the team, he created digital content for large companies.

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