Monday, October 7, 2002
Jury Awards Smoker $28 Billion in Punitive Damages Against Philip Morris
From Staff And Wire Service Reports
Anti-smoking activist Patrick Reynolds, a grandson of tobacco company founder R.J. Reynolds, on Friday commended a Los Angeles jury for awarding a single smoker $28 billion in punitive damages.
The huge award followed by a month a Los Angeles Superior Court jury’s decision that Philip Morris Inc. should pay Betty Bullock $750,000 in damages and $100,000 for pain and suffering. Bullock sued the tobacco conglomerate for fraud and negligence.
Reynolds, who founded the Foundation for a Smokefree America in 1989, said the industry must be held accountable.
“They targeted teens in their ad campaigns, they denied nicotine was a addictive, and for years they claimed publicly that smoking doesn’t cause disease,” he said.
Reynolds added that “smokers should be accountable,” noting that the choice to smoke is “being made by children. Ninety percent of smokers in the U.S. become addicted before reaching their 19th birthday.”
Reynolds attributes the deaths of his father and eldest brother to emphysema caused by smoking his grandfather’s productó-a product he claims is as “addictive as heroine.” Reynolds said he smoked from the ages of 17 to 34.
Philip Morris said it will ask the court to set aside the jury’s verdict and order a new trial.
Analysts said the unprecedented award, a sign of growing hostility toward the tobacco industry, will almost certainly be reduced on appeal.
The previous record for a verdict won by an individual against a tobacco company was $3 billion, awarded in June 2001 to Richard Boeken, a former heroin addict with cancer who died in January. A California judge reduced that award against Philip Morris to $100 million last year.
“I think the judge will see this as a runaway jury award,” Merrill Lynch tobacco analyst Martin Feldman said. He noted that Philip Morris has never lost a case on appeal.
During Bullock’s trial, Philip Morris did not try to defend its past actions. Instead, the company turned the spotlight on Bullock and her decision to smoke. The strategy was a major shift from previous defense efforts.
The 64 year-old plaintiff started smoking at the age of 17. She was diagnosed with lung cancer last year that has spread to her liver.
William Ohlemeyer, the company’s associate general counsel, said:
“Testimony during the trial showed that Ms. Bullock was aware of the health risks of smoking and was warned repeatedly of those risks by her doctors over four decades, and her daughter also urged her to quit. Her response: ‘I am an adult, this is my business.’”
Bullock’s lawyer, Michael Piuze, argued that Philip Morris concealed the dangers of cigarettes with a widespread disinformation campaign that began in the 1950s. He told jurors it was “the largest fraud scheme ever perpetrated by corporations anywhere.”
Piuze used photographs of Bullock, cigarette ads from her teenage years and internal tobacco industry documents to lay out his contention that Philip Morris concealed the dangers of cigarettes.
Philip Morris denied any campaign to fool smokers.
“At this point, it’s really open season on the industry,” said Richard Daynard, a law professor at Northeastern University in Boston and chairman of the Tobacco Products Liability Project.
“Juries all around the country are sending a message that this conduct was not only totally inexcusable but that it was so outrageous there is no amount of money that would be enough to punish the people who perpetrated it,” he said.
Two years ago, a jury awarded thousands of Florida smokers $145 billion in punitive damages against Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Lorillard and Liggett. The award has been appealed.
The California case also drew interest because it follows an Aug. 5 state Supreme Court ruling that grants cigarette makers a new window of immunity. The decision said most statements and acts by tobacco companies between 1988 and 1998 cannot be used as evidence against them because of a law, now repealed, shielding them from liability.
Some analysts think the ruling will give cigarette makers ammunition to overturn three recent plaintiff awards in California—including the Boeken verdict, which was also won by Piuze.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company