Philip Morris Loses Second Lawsuit in Oregon, Ordered to Pay $150M in Damages
An Oregon jury on Friday ordered Philip Morris Co. to pay about $150 million in damages in the case of a woman who died of lung cancer after smoking low-tar cigarettes, the Wall Street Journal reports. The decision is the second straight defeat in Oregon for Philip Morris and follows three consecutive defeats for the tobacco industry in California. The Journal reports that the West Coast losing streak is becoming the "most troublesome legal problem for the [tobacco] industry" and contrasts with its "generally winning litigation record elsewhere." The Oregon jury, which deliberated for five days, found that Philip Morris "made false claims that light cigarettes were safer than regular" cigarettes and assessed damages of $168,514 for the harm caused to Michelle Schwarz, who died in 1999 after smoking Philip Morris' Merit cigarettes "for decades." Saying that the Merit cigarettes were "defective and unreasonably dangerous," the jury levied an additional punitive award of $150 million, 60% of which will go to a state fund for crime victims under Oregon law (Fairclough, Wall Street Journal, 3/25). A lawyer representing Schwarz's estate said Schwarz switched from filtered cigarettes to low-tar cigarettes because Philip Morris marketed them as "having fewer health risks." But a Philip Morris lawyer said that the company markets its low-tar cigarettes only as "milder or feeling less harsh" and that Schwarz should have been "well aware of the dangers of cigarette smoke" as she worked for many years at her husband's medical practice. The decision was the first for any jury about low-tar cigarettes, according to Martin Feldman, a tobacco analyst with Salomon Smith Barney, who added that the size of the award "indicates the tobacco industry still has significant work to do if it is ever to convince West Coast jurors of its defenses" (AP/Washington Post, 3/23). Philip Morris will ask the judge to reduce the amount of the punitive award, which judges have done in all the company's previous West Coast cases. The company will also appeal the jury's decision on the grounds that documents ruled inadmissible were mistakenly given to jurors during deliberations and that other documents were improperly marked in a way "designed to draw jurors' attention to certain passages" (Wall Street Journal, 3/25).
In another tobacco lawsuit, a U.S. District Court jury in Providence, R.I., ruled Thursday that Philip Morris was not liable for the lung cancer death of a Rhode Island man who began smoking cigarettes in 1959, the AP/Providence Journal reports. The jury, which deliberated for six hours, found that Walter Hyde, who died in 1994, received "ample warning about the hazards of cigarettes," a decision that "mirrors other recent rulings" in Rhode Island. Hyde's wife and three children had sought $2 million in compensatory damages, claiming that Philip Morris had caused Hyde's 35-year nicotine addiction. Earlier in the case, Judge Mary Lisi ruled that Philip Morris could not be blamed for health problems that began after 1964, when the U.S. surgeon general first warned that smoking cigarettes could lead to lung cancer. Lawyers representing Hyde's family therefore had to prove that Philip Morris should have warned Hyde about health hazards between 1959 and 1964. Edward Sweda, senior attorney of the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University, said that the lawsuit was "just as strong" as claims that have led to multi-million dollar verdicts elsewhere, but that Lisi's restrictions "made it nearly impossible" for the plaintiffs to win. "In the whole span of litigation against the tobacco companies by victims' families, this is one of the most constricted positions that any plaintiff has been put in," he said (AP/Providence Journal, 3/22).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.