A three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled 2-1 last month that the racketeering statute (known as Rico) under which the case was filed required "forward-looking remedies" and seeking the money was not one.
In asking the full appeals court to hear the case, the Justice Department Argued on Friday that the panel's decision was out of step with legal precedents and could damage the strength of the racketeering law designed to prosecute mobsters.
"The statute involved is the government's most potent weapon for combating organised crime and the issue arises in the biggest civil Rico action the government has ever brought," the Justice Department wrote in its filing.
The department sued major US tobacco companies in 1999, alleging the tobacco industry engaged in a five-decade conspiracy to conceal the health dangers of smoking.
End of claim?
In addition to seeking $280 billion, the government has asked US District Judge Gladys Kessler to impose other penalties, including requiring the companies to pay for smoking cessation programmes and public education campaigns about the dangers of smoking.
Construed broadly, however, last month's decision could eliminate the ability to impose any penalties aimed at curing the effects of past fraudulent activities, the Justice Department said.
The defendants in the lawsuit are Philip Morris and its parent company Altria Group as well as RJ Reynolds Tobacco, Brown & Williamson Tobacco, British American Tobacco, Lorillard Tobacco, Liggett Group, Counsel for Tobacco Research and the Tobacco Institute.