Thursday, November 19, 2009

MIAMI | A South Florida jury on Thursday ordered Philip Morris USA to pay $300 million to a former smoker, agreeing that the tobacco company’s negligence was the cause of her emphysema.

The award for Cindy Naugle, 61, is the largest to date among thousands of lawsuits filed in the state against tobacco companies.

“Cindy admitted her fault to the jury,” her attorney, Robert W. Kelley, said in a statement. “But Philip Morris refused to accept any responsibility for her emphysema, even though she was an addicted customer for 25 years.”

The award amounts to $56 million in compensatory and $244 million in punitive damages against Richmond, Virginia-based Philip Morris USA, a unit of Altria Group Inc. The company said it will seek further review of the verdict by the Broward County jury.

“From the beginning, this case was marked by a fundamentally unfair and unconstitutional trial plan that allowed the jury to rely on findings by a prior jury that have no connection to the plaintiff,” said Murray Garnick, senior vice president for Altria client services and associate general counsel, said in a statement.

The case is one of 8,000 lawsuits filed against tobacco companies by Florida smokers and their families.

Attorneys for Naugle, the sister of a former Fort Lauderdale mayor, said it’s the largest Florida tobacco verdict to date.

“The jury saw her condition,” Todd Falzone, who also represented Naugle, said in a statement. “We think that they felt it. She needed to rest for five minutes to catch her breath after making the 7 step walk to the witness stand.”

Naugle started smoking in 1968 when she was 20 because she thought they “made her look older.” After several attempts to quit, she stopped smoking in 1993 with the aid of a nicotine patch.

She requires 24-hour oxygen and must travel in a wheelchair because walking leaves her exhausted, her attorneys said.

Falzone said Naugle spends every minute “as if she were drowning.”

The smokers’ lawsuits have been working their way through Florida courts since the state Supreme Court in 2006 voided a $145 billion class-action jury award against tobacco companies. The court said each smoker’s case had to be decided individually, but let stand that jury’s findings that tobacco companies knowingly sold dangerous products and hid risks from the public.

“Large verdicts encourage other large verdicts,” said Richard A. Daynard, professor of law at Northeastern University and chairman of the Tobacco Products Liability Project. “I think Philip Morris has finally met its match in Florida. This gives jurors permission to fully compensate plaintiffs for all the harm they suffered and to express their moral outrage at the industry’s behavior.”

The original Florida lawsuit was filed in 1994 by a Miami Beach pediatrician, Dr. Howard Engle, who had smoked for decades and couldn’t quit. The class of smokers was estimated at up to 700,000 when the giant $145 billion award was issued in 2000.

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