TOBACCO: Jury Awards Record $50 Million Verdict
A San Francisco jury yesterday ordered Philip Morris Cos. to pay a record $50 million in punitive damages to a Los Angeles woman with lung cancer. Patricia Henley's punitive award comes one day after the same jury hit Philip Morris with $1.5 million in compensatory damages for medical costs and pain and suffering. The surprisingly large verdict was more than three times the $15 million that plaintiff attorney Madelyn Chaber requested to "send a message back to this company that the price of human life cannot be calculated into the cost of doing business" (Curtis, AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 2/11). Henley said she would donate the money to anti-smoking programs. "I wouldn't touch a nickel of this blood money. My battle is over. I think this is a victory for the children, for the next generation," she said.
From the Jury
"We just didn't feel $15 million was a deterrent for a company that had a $3.4 billion net worth. It was a really easy decision to agree on the $50 million," juror Gwendolyn Leath said (Chiang/Russell, San Francisco Chronicle, 2/11). Jury foreman George Loudis added, "Our decision was based on a lot of evidence, the suppression of known facts by Philip Morris. They had a lot of information they just didn't give out." But William Ohlemeyer, attorney for Philip Morris, said, "The jurors unfortunately let their feelings of sympathy get in the way" (AP/Chronicle, 2/11). Philip Morris, the largest cigarette maker in the nation, will appeal the verdict, according to Ohlemeyer.
David Edelman, an analyst at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, said, "The most important message of this entire process is that this jury was very, very, very angry." He added that the compensatory damages would likely be upheld on appeal "because there clearly were no reversible errors by Judge [John] Munter. The punitive damage award, however, could well be deemed excessive and reduced, if not vacated" (Geyelin, Wall Street Journal, 2/11). Plaintiff attorney Chaber said she expects the industry "to fight as hard as they've ever fought. They have every incentive to do so in this case, but I think, ultimately, that the jury's verdict will be upheld, and this will be an award that lives on" ("Good Morning America," ABC, 2/11). Ohlemeyer responded, however, that the absence of precedent in California over the last ten years may open the case to appeal (Meier, New York Times, 2/11). Dr. Stanton Glantz, a University of California-San Francisco professor of medicine, added, "I think you're just beginning to see the beginning of the dam burst. The evidence of wrongdoing ... is getting overwhelming" (AP/Chronicle, 2/11). But New York University law professor Stephen Gillers was more skeptical about the future of such verdicts, saying, "It's probably partly aberrational. San Francisco ... jogging and crunchy food" (Menin/Levin, Los Angeles Times, 2/11).