- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 5, 2002

A Los Angeles jury yesterday awarded a 64-year-old woman a record $28 billion after the lifelong smoker said she developed lung cancer from cigarettes sold by Philip Morris Cos. Inc., the nation's largest tobacco manufacturer.
Jurors interviewed after the trial said they calculated the $28 billion in punitive damages by multiplying $1 million times the 28,000 persons in the United States who die each year from lung cancer linked to smoking.
"Those are the people who never had a chance to come to the trial," said Frank Guzman, a Pasadena resident who sat on the jury.
The jury voted 11-1 for the $28 billion judgment after discussing punitive damages ranging from $5 billion to $100 billion. The one woman who dissented held out for a much smaller amount.
The award, which Philip Morris said it would appeal, represented 38 percent of the company's 2001 earnings. Philip Morris shares dropped $2.91 to $36.59 on the New York Stock Exchange, contributing to a 189-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average to 7,528.
"It appears that the jury is holding the tobacco industry accountable for decades of lying to the public through deceptive advertising and marketing ploys and for selling an addictive product that kills when used as intended," said Andy Weisser, spokesman for the American Lung Association of California.
Representatives of Philip Morris and other tobacco makers predicted that the amount of the judgment would be reduced on appeal.
The previous largest judgment against a tobacco company was $3 billion in June 2001, but that was reduced by a California judge to $100 million. The plaintiff died of cancer in January.
Philip Morris attorneys argued that plaintiff Betty Bullock assumed the risk of lung cancer when she decided to continue smoking despite known health hazards. She started smoking when she was 17 years old.
In September, the same jury awarded Mrs. Bullock $850,000 in compensatory damages. The damages included $750,000 for economic consequences and $100,000 for pain and suffering.
Philip Morris attorneys accused Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Warren L. Ettinger of failing to give the jury correct instructions that would have limited punitive damages to no more than four times the compensatory damages, which is a standard suggested by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The $28 billion figure is nearly 33,000 times greater than the compensatory damages.
"This jury should have focused on what the plaintiff knew about the health risks of smoking and whether anything the company ever said or did improperly influenced her decision to smoke or not to quit," said William S. Ohlemeyer, Philip Morris' associate general counsel. "Instead, it appears that this decision speaks to more general policy issues regarding smoking that can't fairly be decided in lawsuits like this."
Philip Morris said it would ask the trial court to set aside the verdict and grant a new trial or reduce the amount of the punitive damages. Otherwise, the New York company plans to appeal to the California Court of Appeals.
Mark Smith, spokesman for competitor Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., said the judgment resulted from a runaway jury.
"There are guidelines that the courts follow and lay down, and it's obvious these people just didn't follow them," he said.
Any other large judgments against tobacco companies have been reduced on appeal, he said.
"The courts realize that at some point it becomes nonsensical," he said.
Diane Wiley, president of the Minneapolis branch of the National Jury Project, a trial-consulting firm, said the jury appeared to be punishing Philip Morris rather than merely compensating the plaintiff.
"When you see a verdict like this, it normally means the jurors think the conduct was reprehensible," she said.
Juries can award punitive damages if a defendant such as Philip Morris knows of a health hazard to its customers but does nothing to protect them or warn them, she said.
"I would say they were angry on the lack of caring by the company and the fact it went on as long as it did," Miss Wiley said.
The lawsuit was the first to be tried since the California Supreme Court issued a ruling that protects cigarette makers from liability for actions between 1988 and 1997 the years covered by a state law that shielded companies from liability for products that were known to be dangerous.
The state legislature repealed the law so California could participate in the multistate litigation and settlement against the tobacco industry.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide