Jury Orders Philip Morris To Pay $850,000 in Compensatory Damages to California Smoker
A Los Angeles jury yesterday ordered Philip Morris to pay $850,000 in compensatory damages to a California smoker diagnosed with lung cancer after smoking the tobacco company's cigarettes for decades, the Los Angeles Times reports. The case marks the tobacco industry's fourth consecutive loss in California and sixth straight loss on the West Coast in lawsuits filed by individual smokers. In the case, Betty Bullock, 64, of Newport Beach, Calif., filed suit against Philip Morris for alleged negligence, fraud and the manufacture of a defective product. The 12-member jury found that Philip Morris had "misrepresented and intentionally concealed" information about the dangers and addictiveness of the company's products, manufactured a defective product and failed to "warn Bullock of the risks prior to the placement of warning labels on cigarettes" in the 1960s (Los Angeles Times, 9/27). The jury awarded Bullock $750,000 in economic damages and $100,000 for pain and suffering (Avery, AP/Nando Times, 9/26). Because the jury also found Philip Morris guilty of "malice, fraud or oppression," the company now faces an assessment of punitive damages. Michael Piuze, the attorney for the plaintiff, praised the decision and said that he was "looking forward to seeing what the jury thinks is the proper punishment for Philip Morris' role in the deaths of 1.5 million Californians" from tobacco-related illnesses since the 1950s. Philip Morris attorneys said that they would not comment on the decision until after the punitive damage phase of the trial (Fairclough, Wall Street Journal, 9/27). The punitive phase of the trial will begin Oct. 1 in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
The Bullock case is the first tried under new evidence rules in California that tobacco industry officials and Wall Street analysts had hoped would "get the once-invincible industry back on the winning track" (Los Angeles Times, 9/27). The California Supreme Court ruled on Aug. 5 that smokers in the state can file suit against the tobacco industry for fraud and negligence but cannot present most evidence of the industry's conduct between 1988, when the state enacted a law to protect tobacco companies from lawsuits, and 1998, when the state repealed the law. In a 6-1 decision, the court ruled that the law only protects tobacco companies from lawsuits based on the industry's conduct between 1988 and 1998. In a second 5-2 decision, the court ruled that smokers can use evidence from the 10-year immunity period only in cases in which tobacco companies may have used additives to make smoking more addictive (California Healthline, 8/6). However, the state Supreme Court decisions reduced "only slightly" the number of internal documents that Piuze presented in the Bullock case (Los Angeles Times, 9/27). Edward Sweda, senior attorney at the Tobacco Control Resource Center at Northeastern University, said that the decision in the case "shows there remains sufficient evidence to convict tobacco companies" (AP/Nando Times, 9/26). The decision also "underlines the threat to the tobacco industry from suits by individuals in the state where Philip Morris has tried various legal strategies without success," the Journal reports. Martin Feldman, a tobacco industry analyst at Merrill Lynch, said, "There appears to be little reason to believe the industry will start winning these cases. All the data points are negative" (Wall Street Journal, 9/27).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.