TOBACCO: Jury Awards California Cancer Patient $20M
A San Francisco Superior Court jury yesterday ordered cigarette makers Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds to pay $20 million in punitive damages to a California lung cancer patient who began smoking after warning labels were placed on cigarette packs. The Los Angeles Times reports that the verdict "shatter[ed] the notion that tobacco companies were safe from legal claims by those who took up smoking after the labels appeared in the 1960s" (Levin/Menn, 3/28). As part of their defense against smokers' claims, tobacco companies have long relied on a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the "1969 labeling requirements preempted state juries from awarding damages to smokers on the grounds that they had not been adequately warned about tobacco's dangers," but attorneys for Leslie Whiteley, who took up the habit in 1972 at age 13, argued that the tobacco companies had "engaged in fraud by conspiring to misrepresent the hazards of cigarettes" (Meier, New York Times, 3/28).
No Shut-Off Valve
New York University law professor Stephen Gillers said that if such claims can prevail, "the tobacco companies face a virtually unlimited pool of prospective plaintiffs. ... [T]hey don't have a shut-off valve." Tobacco executives said they plan to appeal the verdict. William Ohlemeyer, vice president and associate general counsel at Philip Morris, said the finding "flies in the face of common sense to suggest that an individual who ... never smoked a cigarette from a package that did not have a surgeon general's warning on it was somehow uninformed or misled about the health risks of smoking." The case marks the "third consecutive West Coast defeat for the tobacco industry," the Los Angeles Times reports. The 12-member jury last week found the two companies liable for negligence and fraud, awarding compensatory damages of $1.72 million (Los Angeles Times, 3/28).