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Court agrees to suspend legal proceedings against tobacco companies until fall

An Ontario court has agreed to extend an order suspending legal proceedings against three major tobacco companies as they negotiate a settlement with their creditors after losing an appeal in a multibillion-dollar case in Quebec.

The stay of proceedings was granted in March as part of the creditor protection process and upheld the following month after some of the companies’ creditors challenged it.

The order was set to expire June 28, but will now be renewed until Oct. 4.

The companies – JTI-Macdonald Corp., Rothmans, Benson & Hedges and Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd. – had initially sought to prolong the stay until December but presented a revised proposal last week.

The order was first obtained shortly after Quebec’s highest court upheld a landmark decision that ordered the tobacco companies to pay more than $15 billion to smokers in two class-action lawsuits.

The stay is meant to maintain the status quo while the companies go through mediation with all those who have claims against them, including the class-action members and several provincial governments.

Lawyers representing the class members argued in April that the stay in their case should be revoked if the companies plan to appeal the Quebec ruling to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Thomas McEwen rejected their request, saying it would give an unfair advantage to the Quebec creditors over the others.

But he ruled the stay would also prevent any of the companies from seeking leave to appeal to Canada’s top court unless they obtain the court’s permission.

McEwen also denied Ontario’s bid to push forward with a lawsuit that aims to recover smoking-related health-care costs from a dozen Canadian firms and their parent companies, including the three companies granted the stay.

The judge said allowing the lawsuit to proceed before settlement talks are complete would favour Ontario over other provincial governments seeking similar relief.

Health groups have also opposed the stay, calling it a delay tactic by companies whose profitability isn’t immediately threatened.

In a statement issued this week, the groups say the companies “have not even initiated settlement discussions, and have set no time limits to address the claims made against them.”