Los Angeles Court to Hear Opening Arguments in Smoking Case Today
Opening arguments are expected today in the case of Richard Boeken, a smoker since the 1950s who is suing Philip Morris for compensatory and punitive damages, alleging that the company "lied to smokers and the government about the hazards and addictive nature of smoking," the Los Angeles Times reports. Boeken's case represents the first smoking and health case tried in Los Angeles County. Eighteen months ago, Boeken was diagnosed with lung cancer, which since has spread to his brain. Boeken's attorney, Michael Piuze, will argue that when Boeken began smoking, there were no health warnings on cigarette packages and that the tobacco industry's "aggressive efforts to belittle the scientific evidence found a willing audience in Boeken." For its part, Philip Morris maintains that Boeken "understood the risks" of smoking, "made a choice" to continue smoking and thus is "not entitled to damages," the Times reports. The jury trial, taking place in Los Angeles Superior Court, is expected to last between four and six weeks.
The Times reports that the case "will be closely watched" by the tobacco industry and analysts on Wall Street because there are "signs that California courts may be uniquely hostile territory" for tobacco companies. Until recently, tobacco companies could not be sued in California due to a 1987 tort reform law. Since the ban was lifted, the tobacco industry has faced "dramatic defeats" in California. In 1999, a San Francisco jury ordered Philip Morris to pay $51.5 million to Patricia Henley, and in 2000, another San Francisco jury ordered Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco to pay Leslie Whiteley $21.7 million. Both women were smokers who had developed lung cancer. Whiteley's victory, in particular, was "alarming" for the industry because she did not start smoking until after warning labels were put on cigarette packs. Martin Feldman, a Salomon Smith Barney analyst, said that cigarette makers' image in California "is worse than almost anywhere else in the country." Ed Sweda of the Boston-based Tobacco Products Liability Project added that a victory for Boeken would "send a very strong message to plaintiffs' firms" in California that anti-tobacco cases "are viable" (Levin, Los Angeles Times, 4/2).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.