C.A. Upholds $28 Million Damage Award in Smoking Case
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The Court of Appeal for this district Friday affirmed a $28 million punitive damage award against Philip Morris USA, Inc., saying the cigarette manufacturer was guilty of reprehensible conduct in its efforts to suppress knowledge of the dangers of smoking.
The award was 33 times the $850,000 in compensatory damages awarded to Betty Bullock, who died of cancer in 2003 while the case was on appeal. Her daughter Jodie Bullock was substituted as plaintiff.
A Los Angeles Superior Court jury concluded four years ago that Philip Morris should pay $28 billion in punitive damages, but the plaintiff accepted a remittitur ordered by retired Pasadena Municipal Court Judge Warren Ettinger, who tried the case on assignment, rather than face a new trial.
Justice Walter Croskey, writing for Div. Three, rejected the company’s argument that a U.S. Supreme Court case that generally limits punitive damages to less than 10 times compensatory damages should control.
“We....hold that the extreme reprehensibility of Philip Morris’s conduct justifies a ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages significantly greater than a single-digit,” Croskey wrote.
The evidence, Croskey explained, supported the plaintiff’s contention that Philip Morris concealed the dangers of cigarettes with a widespread misinformation campaign that began in the 1950s. Bullock testified that she smoked cigarettes manufactured by Philip Morris—first Marlboros, then Benson & Hedges—for 45 years, from age 17 until she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2001.
Philip Morris, which in prior cases had defended its sale of the product, argued at the trial of Bullock’s suit that the dangers of smoking became well enough known that the plaintiff could have avoided cancer by stopping smoking before she developed cancer.
But Croskey said the jury was entitled to find that the plaintiff reasonable relied on the defendant’s fraudulent conduct.
The justice summarized the evidence:
“Philip Morris, individually and through agents and trade associations, discredited the studies showing that smoking was likely a cause of serious illnesses and sought to reassure smokers that Philip Morris and other cigarette manufacturers were sponsoring research to resolve the purported controversy and that the research would be overseen by disinterested scientists.
“Substantial evidence shows that contrary to those representations, Philip Morris knew that there was no valid scientific controversy concerning the adverse health effects of smoking, that it carefully avoided conducting or sponsoring research that might reveal the health hazards of smoking and concealed the results of research conducted in Germany on its behalf, and that it sought to maintain the false controversy and to make its cigarettes more addictive in order to increase sales.”
Presiding Justice Joan Dempsey Klein concurred in Croskey’s opinion. Justice Patti Sue Kitching dissented, arguing that the punitive damage award was excessive and should be reduced to no more than nine times the compensatory damages.
The case is Bullock v. Philip Morris U.S.A., Inc., B164398.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company