A Montreal lawyer who was a top executive for Imperial Tobacco Ltd. in the 1980s and 90s has admitted in a major Canadian tobacco trial that he helped destroy dozens of company research documents, some of which dated back decades and spelled out health risks associated with smoking.
Roger Ackman, who was on Imperial's management committee and ran its legal department until he retired in 1999, had difficulty remembering the precise nature of the documents destroyed or why, exactly, the company embarked on the shredding mission.
Mr. Ackman said he hired outside counsel, including prominent Montreal lawyer Simon Potter, to destroy at least 60 documents including some research that showed the company was aware smoking could cause cancer and other health problems. The company, like most of the tobacco industry, denied for decades that it was aware of the existence of proven health risks.
Mr. Ackman is testifying in a $27-billion class-action suit against three tobacco companies launched on behalf of Quebec tobacco addicts and smokers who suffered tobacco-related diseases. The plaintiffs are expected to try to call to the stand Mr. Potter, who currently represents one of the defendant companies, Rothmans, Benson & Hedges, in the lawsuit.
While Mr. Ackman was fuzzy on many details, a 2006 ruling in United States Federal District Court fills in many gaps. The ruling concluded research papers stored in the US, Canada and Australia were shredded to hide damning evidence.
The only remaining copies of many of the papers were stored in the United Kingdom by British American Tobacco, an Imperial affiliate, setting up a series of extra jurisdictional hurdles for plaintiffs – if they became aware the research papers existed.
The landmark ruling by U.S. Federal Court Judge Gladys Kessler named Mr. Potter, a leading Montreal business lawyer, as having led the document destruction effort at Imperial. The judge believed the shredding was done to protect U.S. tobacco company Brown & Williamson in its own landmark litigation.
"What a sad and disquieting chapter in the history of an honorable and often courageous profession," Judge Kessler wrote, assessing the role of dozens of lawyers in Canada, the U.S. and Australia in the document destruction.
Gordon Kugler, one of more than a dozen lawyers acting for the plaintiffs, outlined in his questioning what appeared to be a carefully designed plan put into place as a series of Canadian laws and court cases in the late 1980s and early 1990s imposed health warnings on cigarette packaging and restrictions on tobacco advertising.
Mr. Ackman insisted the documents were only destroyed once the company was sure copies of the research papers were available in the United Kingdom.
"My recollection is documents were not destroyed until we were reassured BAT would provide access to the documents," Mr. Ackman said.
But in an internal memo crafted in 1989, tobacco executives celebrated a "major victory" in Canadian courts when a judge refused to order the production of documents from BAT, an Imperial shareholder at the time. By 1992, dozens of documents remaining in Canada were destroyed.