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Are e-cigarette companies liable for getting minors addicted to their products? That’s what lawyers for Philly-area teens are saying in a rush of new lawsuits filed against Juul.

Since October, eight legal claims against the San Francisco-based vaping giant have been filed in Philadelphia’s federal courthouse, adding to a surge of similar litigation across the country.

In Philly court, two teenagers and three 20-something adults allege the e-cig outfit deceptively marketed to them at a young age and got them hooked. One plaintiff claims he sustained severe lung damage and was hospitalized as a result of Juul use.

Three other plaintiffs are school districts in Bucks County, which argue that vaping addiction has placed a massive burden on the administration and drained educational resources.

The Philly suits are part of a surging trend that follows a wave of alleged vaping-related illnesses. The ensuing panic has heightened scrutiny on the industry — especially of the products’ popularity among teens. About half a dozen lawsuits were recently filed against the company in New York’s federal court.

Billy Penn has reached out to Juul for comment. The company is partially owned by global tobacco giant Altria, previously known as Philip Morris Companies.

In some local cases, parents are co-signing the lawsuits on behalf of their children. Michael M. Weinkowitz, an attorney for several of the teens suing Juul, argues there’s precedent for these personal injury claims.

“There is a substantial case law in nearly every state that addiction is a severe and compensable injury,” Weinkowitz told Billy Penn.

Juul ads submitted as exhibits in one of the lawsuits Credit: U.S. Eastern District Court

‘Life-altering and permanent injuries’

Danielle Ryan, a 19-year-old from Montgomery County, filed a personal injury claim in the U.S. Eastern District last week. Seeking $75,000 in damages — the minimum for the federal court to consider a case of this type — Ryan claims the company’s targeted ads got them hooked on vaping at age 17.

Just two years ago, the company refused to sign a pledge to stop marketing its flavored pods to high schoolers as part of a lawsuit settlement with California’s Center for Environmental Health, Weinkowitz noted.

“They addicted a generation of kids and refused to pledge not to stop until they were forced,” Weinkowitz said.

Chad Kufro, a 19-year-old college student in the region, filed a claim against Juul in November.

Kufro’s suit alleges “life-altering and permanent injuries” in the form of a vaping addiction. He claims his exposure to high nicotine levels at a young age altered his brain development — “an injury that cannot be undone,” according to the complaint.

In another complaint filed in Philly, Jason Gluch, a 27-year-old from Bucks County, says he bought into Juul’s marketing and made the switch from cigarettes to e-cigs earlier this year. Gluch’s complaint says he was hospitalized in July over respiratory failure and diagnosed with a rare lung condition called BOOP.

Since the beginning of the year, the U.S. Center for Disease Control reports 47 deaths and nearly 2,300 cases of illness linked to vaping-related products.

The overwhelming number of those health scares have been traced to illicit THC products — not regulated tobacco pods like what Juul sells — although the CDC says the uncertainty remains. The agency still urges consumers to avoid all vaping products.

Amid the outbreak of deaths and illnesses, Juul stopped selling one of their popular fruit flavors in October, and last month withdrew its mint flavor from the market. Juul now only sells tobacco and menthol flavors, which remain popular with young folks. Amid this year’s vape panic, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney is seeking to ban most city retailers from selling flavored e-cig products.

As part of its promised reforms, the company also suspended advertising in the U.S., and vowed to focus on scientific research that would reduce teen use.

The two local school districts suing the company — Central Bucks, Neshaminy and Quakertown Community School Districts in Bucks County — join others across the nation that have filed similar litigation.

As is standard practice, none of these cases will be tried in Philly’s federal courthouse. The complaints will migrate to the California district where Juul is headquartered.

In response to similar litigation filed recently in other states, Juul has said the cases were without merit and that the company plans to fight them in court.

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Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...