Los Angeles Jury Orders Philip Morris To Pay $28 Billion to California Smoker
A Los Angeles jury on Friday ordered Philip Morris to pay $28 billion in punitive damages to a California smoker diagnosed with lung cancer after she smoked the tobacco company's cigarettes for decades, the Los Angeles Times reports. The judgment marks the largest punitive award to an individual in U.S. history, the Times reports (Weinstein, Los Angeles Times, 10/5). 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. The jury last month found in favor of Bullock and ordered Philip Morris to pay $850,000 in compensatory damages (California Healthline, 9/27). Plaintiff's attorney Michael Piuze introduced "reams of internal company documents showing that Philip Morris knew for years that its products were addictive and hazardous," although the company denied the health problems associated with tobacco use (Los Angeles Times, 10/5). In the case, which marks the fourth consecutive defeat for Philip Morris in California, Piuze used the same witnesses and internal documents that he introduced last year in a Los Angeles case that resulted in more than $3 billion verdict for a former smoker who has since died (Fairclough, Wall Street Journal, 10/7). The jury said that the "reprehensibility of Philip Morris during the last 50 years and the company's profits" justified the large punitive damage award (Los Angeles Times, 10/5). Although Piuze had requested damages of $20 billion or $6,666,666,666 -- to compare Philip Morris to the devil -- jurors awarded Bullock $28 billion, or $1 million for each of the 28,000 California residents who have died from smoking-related illnesses, the Journal reports (Wall Street Journal, 10/7).
Philip Morris attorneys called the verdict in the Bullock case "misguided" and said that they would request a new trial, the Washington Post reports (Washington Post, 10/5). If denied a new trial, the company plans to appeal the case to the California Court of Appeals (Broder, New York Times, 10/5). Philip Morris has never lost a case on appeal, the Associated Press reports (Gentile, Associated Press, 10/6). In the case, Philip Morris attorneys focused on the behavior of the plaintiff and did not defend the company's past behavior. William Ohlemeyer, Philip Morris vice president and associate general counsel, said, "The jury should have focused on what the plaintiff knew about the health risks of smoking and whether anything the company ever said or did improperly influenced her decision to smoke or not to quit." He added that the verdict addresses "more general policy issues regarding smoking that can't fairly be decided in lawsuits." Philip Morris added that the verdict in the Bullock case far exceeded damages awarded in similar cases (New York Times, 10/5). The verdict equals about 38% of the earnings that the company reported in 2001 (Ramstack, Washington Times, 10/5).
Richard Daynard, a Northeastern University law professor, said that the "impulse among juries to punish tobacco companies remained strong" and that the award in the Bullock case "made it clear that it was open season" on the tobacco industry, the New York Times reports (New York Times, 10/5). Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said that tobacco "companies are being hung on their own words from their own documents." He added that tobacco lawsuits have become "less and less about the behavior of individual smokers and more and more about the cumulative behavior of the tobacco industry" (Los Angeles Times, 10/5). NPR's "All Things Considered" on Friday reported on the Bullock case (Hochberg, "All Things Considered," NPR, 10/4). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.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.