S.F. school district wants renaming fight, recall kept out of Juul trial

Juul brand vape cartridges are pictured for sale at a shop in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., September 26, 2019. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo
  • First bellwether trial over Juul's alleged marketing to teens set for next month
  • School district says company wants to 'confuse' and 'mislead' jurors

(Reuters) - San Francisco's Unified School District has asked a judge to keep Juul Labs Inc from bringing up recent controversies surrounding the district, including a scrapped plan to rename 44 schools and the subsequent recall of school board members, at an upcoming trial in which it will try to hold the e-cigarette maker responsible for vaping addiction among students.

"This court should not permit defendants to play on the emotions of the jury by weaponizing controversies unrelated to any material fact at issue," the school district said in a motion filed Monday in San Francisco federal court.

The school board in February 2021 halted its plan to rename schools named after figures proponents said were linked to historical injustice, including former U.S. presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, amid fierce backlash from parents angry about continued school closures due to COVID-19. Three school board members were recalled a year later.

According to the district, Juul and its largest shareholder, Marlboro maker Altria Group, intend to introduce testimony about the renaming controversy and the recall to undermine the district's credibility, part of a strategy that also includes arguing that the district failed to prevent vaping and that it would not effectively spend any damages it won.

The district is asking U.S. District Judge William Orrick to exclude testimony that it failed to spend or request available state anti-smoking funds, calling the topic "a waste of time that would confuse the issues and mislead the jury."

In their own motion Monday, Juul and Altria also sought to keep various topics out of the trial, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's now-paused ban of Juul e-cigarettes, and testimony about the products' alleged link to severe lung damage, which they said was "irrelevant, a waste of time, and risks confusing the jury as to the real issues in this case."

Lawyers for the school district and for Juul and Altria did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The district's lawsuit has been chosen as the first bellwether, or test case, to go to trial out of thousands brought by local government entities and individuals over Juul's marketing practices that have been consolidated in a multidistrict litigation before Orrick. The school district alleges that it has been forced to expend resources combating vaping in school.

Juul last month agreed to pay $438.5 million to settle claims by 34 U.S. states and territories that it downplayed its products' risks and targeted underage buyers, without admitting wrongdoing.

The case is In re Juul Labs Inc, Marketing, Sales Practices, and Products Liability Litigation, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, No. 19-md-02913.

For plaintiffs: Sarah London of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein; Dena Sharp of Girard Sharp; Dean Kawamoto of Keller Rohrback; and Ellen Relkin of Weitz & Luxenberg

For Juul: Gregory Stone of Munger, Tolles & Olson; and David Bernick of Kirkland & Ellis

For Altria: John Massaro of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer

Read more:

Juul ban put on hold as FDA starts additional review

Juul to pay about $439 million to settle e-cigarette marketing probe

San Francisco backpedals on controversial plan to rename schools

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Brendan Pierson reports on product liability litigation and on all areas of health care law. He can be reached at brendan.pierson@thomsonreuters.com.