The Olathe School District on Monday filed suit against the nation’s leading maker of e-cigarettes, charging it deliberately markets its products to school-age children and misleads them about their dangers.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Kansas City, Kansas, says that Juul Labs Inc. has “succeeded in addicting a generation of youth to nicotine” by adopting the marketing tactics of the tobacco industry.
Simultaneously, the Francis Howell School District in St. Charles County, Missouri, filed suit against Juul in federal court in St. Louis. The two lawsuits are being handled by the same law firms and contain identical language.
A third lawsuit, by the Three Village Central School District in Long Island, New York, was also filed against Juul on Monday.
The Goddard, Kansas, school district last month authorized a lawsuit against Juul, but that case had not been filed as of late Monday afternoon.
The three school district suits seek unspecified damages for the costs the districts have incurred in combating what they describe as “the epidemic of student vaping” in their districts.
“Plaintiff and its administrative staff have expended substantial institutional energy, resources, and money in the monitoring, educating and disciplining of students as a result of the significant increase in vaping in school,” the 83-page lawsuit filed by the Olathe School District states.
“Schools have been forced to install special sensors in bathrooms, remove bathroom doors, ban flash drives, hire more staff and provide programs to help students deal with nicotine addiction,” Kirk Goza, a lawyer for the school districts, told KCUR in an email. “This does not take into account the institutional energy spent monitoring and enforcing policies to try and deal with the problem.”
Although numerous lawsuits have been filed against Juul by individual users of its products, the cases filed Monday are believed to be the first filed anywhere in the country by school districts.
Juul officials could not immediately be reached for comment. But in previous comments, the company has denied targeting youth and said its products are designed as an alternative to cigarettes.
The Olathe lawsuit was filed 10 days after district officials announced they had decided to sue Juul. In a news release, the district said the company’s e-cigarettes and vaping devices posed “a significant threat to student health with misleading advertisements targeted toward middle and high school students. It is the district’s responsibility to protect its students.”
The three school district lawsuits seek damages under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly known as RICO, as well as damages for public nuisance, negligence, willful misconduct, design defect and other counts.
The cases are being handled on a contingency basis, meaning the lawyers will only get paid if the school districts prevail.
In recent months, a host of illnesses and deaths have been linked to vaping products. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control reports that, as of Oct. 1, 1,080 lung injury cases have been reported in 48 states and one U.S. territory. Eighteen deaths in 15 states have been confirmed, including two in Kansas and one in Missouri.
It’s unclear what’s causing the lung injuries, but the CDC notes that vaping products may have a mix of ingredients, including potentially illicit substances.
The Food and Drug Administration last month issued a warning letter to Juul in which it accused it of illegally marketing its vaping devices as safer than traditional cigarettes. The agency threatened the company with civil penalties and seizure of its products if didn't stop.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.