SAN FRANCISCO: Tobacco Firms Ordered to Pay Ex-Smoker
Finding that Philip Morris Cos. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc. "misrepresented the health danger of cigarettes," a state-court jury ordered the companies to pay $1.7 million in compensatory damages to a former smoker dying of lung cancer and her family, the Wall Street Journal reports. The 12-member jury, following seven days of deliberations, also stated in court records that the companies had "acted with malice and therefore could be liable for punitive damages." The decision -- the tobacco industry's second defeat in a row before a California jury -- is "especially worrisome for cigarette makers," some analysts said, because the plaintiff began smoking in 1972, three years after the federal government mandated warning labels on cigarettes (Fairclough, 3/21). "For years lawyers have told me they wouldn't touch a case where the plaintiff started smoking after the surgeon general's warning was placed on the package," Richard Daynard of the Tobacco Products Liability Project said. He added, "It's hard to imagine now what kind of case the industry could win" (McQuillen/Chen, Bloomberg News/Contra Costa Times, 3/21). According to court testimony, plaintiff Leslie Whiteley "was for years a heavy marijuana user, a fact the tobacco companies sought to blame as the primary cause of her lung cancer." But Whiteley's attorney, Madelyn Chaber, focused on the "conduct of the tobacco companies," arguing that they "tried to cover up evidence about the health risks of smoking and mislead the public about the hazards of their products." The verdict is likely to "further heighten fears" for tobacco companies. Anti-tobacco activists, however, said the results are "encouraging." Clifford Douglas, president of Tobacco Control Law & Policy Consulting in Ann Arbor, Mich., wrote before the verdict, "If this case is won, then almost any case can be won" (Wall Street Journal, 3/21).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.