Federal Court Rules Tobacco Companies Not Liable For California Smoker’s Death
A federal judge in Oakland on Tuesday ruled that Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco were not responsible for the death of a longtime smoker, marking the first time since 1999 that the tobacco industry has won such a case on the West Coast, the Los Angeles Times reports. The suit was filed by the family of Frank White, who began smoking at age 14 and had heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease when he died in 1999. Lawyers for the family argued that the tobacco companies were responsible for his death because they failed to design safer cigarettes or provide sufficient warnings about the health risks of smoking (Levin, Los Angeles Times, 1/1). However, Judge Saundra Armstrong of the U.S. District Court in Oakland ruled that the plaintiffs "offered no evidence whatsoever that the ordinary consumer was unaware of the health risks of smoking" and failed to provide evidence that "had the decedent known of and believed the risks of cigarette smoking, he would not have smoked." Armstrong also said she could "discern no evidence" that White's death was caused by the design of the cigarettes he smoked. The Wall Street Journal reports that the ruling could present a "significant challenge" for future plaintiffs in California because Armstrong found that the plaintiffs offered insufficient evidence to prove that White's illness was caused before 1988 or after 1997, an 10-year immunity period created by the Legislature and upheld by the state Supreme Court that shields cigarette manufacturers from lawsuits. Armstrong said that lack of such evidence was enough to "invalidate" the other claims. The Wall Street Journal reports that the ruling will likely encourage tobacco companies to attempt to move cases filed against them to federal courts from California state courts, where juries have awarded very large punitive-damage judgments in recent years (Fairclough, Wall Street Journal, 1/2).
In other tobacco litigation news, a lawyer representing a California smoker diagnosed with lung cancer said his client would accept a reduced $28-million punitive damage award against Philip Morris but would also appeal the decision to decrease the initial judgment from $28 billion, the AP/San Diego Union-Tribune reports. Attorney Michael Piuze said there would be "no conflict" for his client, Betty Bullock, to simultaneously accept the lower award and appeal the reduction. Piuze said that his client will appeal the reduction because the judge "gave no reason why $28 million was the proper amount. ... He simply said it was using his independent judgment that he thought his number was OK" (Antczak, AP/San Diego Union-Tribune, 12/24/02).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.