Walter J. Leger Jr.

A legal legend looks back on what he calls “maybe one of the most important cases in the history of litigation.”

Lawyers Walterleger

Maritime, Admiralty, Class Actions
Leger & Shaw
45 years in practice
BA Louisiana State University; JD Tulane University School of Law

Walter Leger Jr. is a larger-than-life legal legend who has been at the helm of many high-profile cases in Louisiana and beyond. When the Bright Field cargo ship collided with the Riverwalk Marketplace in 1996, Leger represented the affected businesses in a lawsuit. In the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, he represented the Louisiana parishes that suffered damages. Currently, he’s working for families and businesses affected by the 2019 Hard Rock Hotel collapse.

Leger has also worked on national class action cases related to opioids, breast implants, lead paint and more.

Asked to cite his toughest case, though, Leger chose the sprawling national tobacco litigation of the late 1990s that resulted in a record-setting $250 billion class action settlement between the nation’s four largest tobacco companies and the attorneys general of 46 states.

“That’s the most interesting one I’ve done and maybe one of the most important cases in the history of litigation, I believe,” said Leger, who helped represent Richard Ieyoub, the then-attorney general of Louisiana, and the state of California in the landmark legal action.

Until that point, U.S. tobacco companies had fought and won hundreds of lawsuits, but their winning record finally ended after a national team of lawyers made their case over several years by leveraging new scientific evidence, changing public perception of the industry, and a fair amount of leaked documents.

“When we filed the suit initially, the tobacco companies had like an 805-to-0 record,” said Leger. “They had never lost a case. They defended themselves on the grounds that people smoked because of free will. But, in 1993 or so, the American Psychiatric Association adjusted its view of nicotine and cigarette smoking. They said it was more addictive than any known substance consumed by man. More than heroin or cocaine. So, we filed suit on behalf of states and smokers on the basis that free will was not a factor and that the cigarette companies had conspired for 50 years to make their cigarettes more addictive.”

As a result of the landmark settlement, tobacco companies agreed to restrict their advertising, fund anti-smoking campaigns and, most importantly, pay hundreds of billions to states to cover the costs of providing healthcare to citizens suffering from smoking-related illnesses.

Two decades later, there are concerns about how states have used their windfalls. The American Lung Association reports, for instance, that North Carolina used most of its portion to support the tobacco industry. But there’s no doubt the settlement was a watershed moment.

Not bad for a decade’s work, although the fight might not be over. The tobacco settlement may have changed the landscape, but the industry is still making and marketing dangerous products.

“How about e-cigarettes, guys?” said Leger. “It’s not burning tobacco but it’s still addicting people, and the nicotine itself is a toxin. There’s nothing good about them.”