Law & Courts

School Districts’ Legal Battle With Juul Isn’t Over

By Mark Walsh — September 08, 2022 5 min read
A Juul electronic cigarette starter kit at a smoke shop in New York on Dec. 20, 2018. In a deal announced Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022, electronic cigarette maker Juul Labs will pay nearly $440 million to settle a two-year investigation by 33 states into the marketing of its high-nicotine vaping products, which have long been blamed for sparking a national surge in teen vaping.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The $438.5 million settlement announced this week between e-cigarette maker Juul Labs Inc. and more than 30 states will require changes to the company’s marketing practices that allegedly target youths. But it does not resolve separate litigation brought by hundreds of school districts that contend they have been harmed by the rapid rise of student vaping.

The school district lawsuits have been consolidated in federal district court in San Francisco, and what is known as the “bellwether” case of that category—the one brought by the San Francisco Unified School District—is scheduled to go to trial in November.

A separate category of so-called multidistrict litigation claims involves personal injury suits brought by Juul users, and the trial for a Tennessee teenager who first began using the company’s e-cigarettes at age 12 is scheduled to go to trial this month.

“Settlements occur party by party, so settling with the states is not going to affect litigations brought by other entities such as school boards and cities, because the other entities are asserting different harms,” said Heidi Li Feldman, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington who is an expert on torts and product-liability litigation.

The separate lawsuits by school districts are an indication of lessons learned from the big multistate settlement with tobacco companies in the 1990s, which funneled money to state governments but left out cities, counties, and school districts.

“I think the legacy of the tobacco litigation prompted municipalities and school boards to be more on their toes to make sure that harms particular to them were addressed by resolution of any lawsuits against a business,” Feldman said.

Juul agrees to end marketing to youths, but faces a number of legal challenges

The settlement between Juul and 33 states and Puerto Rico was announced Tuesday by Connecticut Attorney General William Tong. He said the states’ investigation revealed that the San Francisco-based company “relentlessly marketed vaping products to underage youth, manipulated their chemical composition to be palatable to inexperienced users, employed an inadequate age verification process, and misled consumers about the nicotine content and addictiveness of its products.”

As part of the settlement, Juul has agreed to refrain from youth marketing including the use of cartoons, depicting people younger than 35 in ads, hiring young social media influencers, and offering free samples.

Juul has separately reached settlements with four other states and faces additional cases brought by nine state attorneys general. The company is also appealing a June order from the federal Food and Drug Administration that Juul pull its products from the market.

But that settlement “is entirely separate from the ongoing federal Multi-District Litigation (MDL) where hundreds of lawsuits brought by school districts remain ongoing,” Jonathan P. Kieffer, a partner with the Kansas City, Mo., law firm of Wagstaff & Cartwell, which organized many of the school district suits and represents the San Francisco district in the bellwether case, said in an email.

The firm filed a 315-page amended complaint in that case in March, adding new allegations based on evidence from a lengthy discovery process.

Juul and certain other defendants “targeted kids as their customer base,” the suit says. “JUUL products were designed to appear slick and high-tech like a cool gadget, including video-game-like features like ‘party mode.’ [Juul] offered kid-friendly flavors like mango and cool mint, … all because defendants knew that flavors get young people hooked. Under the guise of youth smoking prevention, [Juul] sent representatives directly to schools to study teenager e-cigarette preferences.”

The complaint cites evidence that a Juul representative told 9th graders in a 2018 presentation that the company’s product was “much safer than cigarettes” and was “totally safe.”

The lawsuit details problems the rapid increase of vaping caused for schools.

“E-cigarette use has completely changed school bathrooms—now known as ‘the Juul room,’” the suit says. “As one high school student explained, ‘it’s just a cloud.’”

The suit said the San Francisco school district has had to create programs to address student e-cigarette use and divert staff resources to monitor school restrooms, among other harms.

Juul argues that the San Francisco school district suit is unsupported by the evidence. In a motion for summary judgment filed in the schools case in August, Juul said the amended complaint filed by the San Francisco district shows that the suit’s initial allegations were not supported by discovery.

“SFUSD has no fact witnesses, no documents, and no experts that can quantify any harm that SFUSD experienced due to JUUL products,” the Juul filing says. The motion says the San Francisco district is seeking a multi-hundred-million dollar award (the specific amount is blacked out in the public version of the document) to establish its own public health system.

“SFUSD … proposes that it be awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to dictate public-health strategy for one of the most populous regions of Northern California and that JLI—only one industry player, and now not even the largest one—pay for all of it,” Juul’s motion says.

The San Francisco district will file an answer to Juul’s summary judgment motion next week, Kieffer said.

Feldman, the Georgetown law professor, said Juul’s settlement with the states does not necessarily strengthen the hand of the school district plaintiffs in their separate suits against the e-cigarette maker.

“When defendants settle, part of what they are doing is trying to limit the amount of money they pay out from the same underlying actions,” she said.

But the settlement with states may also be an indication that Juul would be willing to reach some kind of settlement with plaintiffs in the consolidated cases in the multidistrict litigation, she added.

“That’s a business decision” for the company, she said.

Related Tags:

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Early Childhood Webinar
How the Science of Reading Elevates Our Early Learners to Success
From the creators of ABCmouse, learn how a solution grounded in the science of reading can prepare our youngest learners for kindergarten.
Content provided by Age of Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
English-Language Learners Webinar
Classroom Strategies for Building EL Students’ Confidence and Success
Fueling success for EL students who are learning new concepts while navigating an unfamiliar language. Join the national discussion of strategies and Q&A.
Content provided by Project Lead The Way
Future of Work Live Online Discussion Seat at the Table: Understanding the Critical Link Between Student Mental Health and the Future of Work
In recent months, there’s been a rallying cry against the teaching of social-emotional skills. Discover why students need these skills now more than ever.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Court Backs Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Clash Over School LGBTQ Bias Policy
A federal appeals court said the San Jose, Calif., school district applied its anti-discrimination policy inconsistently.
4 min read
Scales of justice and Gavel on wooden table and Lawyer or Judge working with agreement in Courtroom, Justice and Law concept.
Pattanaphong Khuankaew/iStock
Law & Courts New Court Ruling Allows Former School Resource Officer to Be Sued for Excessive Force
In a relatively rare denial of qualified immunity for a police officer, a federal appeals court revives a student's civil claim.
3 min read
A school resource officer in Anderson, Calif., walks a middle school student back to class on Dec. 9, 2013.
A school resource officer and middle school student in Anderson, Calif., walk to class on Dec. 9, 2013. In a case involving an SRO in Florida, a federal appeals court has voted to revive a civil claim for excessive force on behalf of a student.
Andreas Fuhrmann/The Record Searchlight via AP
Law & Courts K-12 Groups Back Racial Diversity as Supreme Court Schedules Affirmative Action Arguments
Teachers' unions and school administrator groups ask the court to uphold the consideration of race to achieve a diverse student body.
5 min read
In this June 8, 2021 photo, with dark clouds overhead, the Supreme Court is seen in Washington.
The U.S. Supreme Court in October will hear arguments in a pair of cases about the consideration of race in college admissions.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Law & Courts In a Chat, Two U.S. Supreme Court Justices Talk Civics, Media Literacy
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Amy Coney Barrett discussed civics education in a recorded interview presented by the Ronald Reagan Institute.
3 min read
Civics Justices 07292022 172183035
iStock/Getty Images Plus