Judge Reduces Smoker’s Punitive Damage Award from Philip Morris to $28M
A Superior Court Judge in Los Angeles yesterday "slashed" a punitive damage verdict against Philip Morris from $28 billion to $28 million in a lawsuit filed by a California smoker diagnosed with lung cancer after she smoked the company's cigarettes for decades, the Los Angeles Times reports (Levin, Los Angeles Times, 12/19). In the case, Betty Bullock, 64, of Newport Beach, filed suit against Philip Morris for alleged negligence, fraud and the manufacture of a defective product. A Los Angeles jury earlier this year ordered Philip Morris to pay Bullock $28 billion in punitive damages, the largest punitive award to an individual in U.S. history, in addition to $850,000 in compensatory damages. The case marked the fourth consecutive legal defeat for Philip Morris in California (California Healthline, 10/7).
However, in a seven-page decision issued yesterday, Judge Warren Ettinger called the $28 billion award "legally excessive" and said that $28 million "is a reasonable sum to be awarded against Philip Morris" (Los Angeles Times, 12/19). Jurors said that they based the $28 billion verdict on arguments by attorney Michael Piuze, who represented Bullock in the case, that "just one lawsuit is filed against cigarette makers for every 28,000 Californians who die of smoking-related diseases," the Wall Street Journal reports. The jury issued the verdict based on $1 million in damages for each of the 28,000 individuals (Fairclough, Wall Street Journal, 12/19). Ettinger yesterday also denied two motions filed by Philip Morris: a request for a new trial and a request that the judge overturn the jury's verdict and declare the company not liable. In his decision, Ettinger wrote that the plaintiff proved "it had been known since the 1950s that cigarette smoke caused lung cancer; that nicotine was a highly addictive drug; and that executives of Philip Morris were aware of these facts." He added, "Plaintiff also proved ... that Philip Morris constantly lied to its customers," lawmakers and the media about the link between cigarette smoke and lung cancer (Los Angeles Times, 12/19). In the case, Philip Morris attorneys focused on the behavior of the plaintiff and did not defend the company's past behavior (AP/Baltimore Sun, 12/19).
Piuze said that he was "extremely disappointed" with the decision to reduce the $28 billion verdict to $28 million, the Journal reports (Wall Street Journal, 12/19). He has not decided whether to accept the award by the Dec. 27 deadline or seek a new trial on punitive damages (Los Angeles Times, 12/19). He said that the $28 million award "is not real punishment" for Philip Morris and "will not deter similar conduct that imperils the health and lives of our citizens." William Ohlemeyer, associate general counsel for Philip Morris, said that the decision to reduce the $28 billion award "was more consistent with our view of the law" but added that the "company plans to ask an appeals court to overturn the entire verdict," the Journal reports (Wall Street Journal, 12/19).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.