Thursday, February 19, 2009

Tobacco Company Loses Jury Trial

The Chicago Tribune prints a full Associated Press report here of the jury trial in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Elaine Hess, the widow of long-time chain smoker Stuart Hess, sued Philip Morris after her husband died of lung cancer. The jury deliberated for two days before awarding $3 million compensatory damages and $5 million punitive damages. Mrs. Hess' attorneys had sought $130 million in damages. As a jury decision, there will not be a published decision. Philip Morris is planning to appeal, and that may generate a published decision.

The case is particularly noteworthy because the tobacco companies for many years were sued by smokers or their mourning relations. And the tobacco companies never lost a case. The sense of the judges and juries seemed to be that the smokers took the risk when they decided to smoke. But the revelations in more recent years of the memoranda where tobacco company executives made decisions to keep secret clear evidence of the dangers of smoking. Not only did they keep secret the evidence that their research uncovered, but they vehemently denied that smoking was dangerous, over and over, in congressional hearings, and public fora. (Read an article in the Lancet online from 2004 about this here) The publication of those memos turned the tide in the litigation, and suddenly, juries began to find tobacco companies liable. There are 8,000 smokers' cases pending in Florida alone, following the outcome of the Hess trial.

The Hess case followed a decision by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006, the Engle decision, which voided a class action jury decision in that case below. That jury had awarded $145 million as a class action award to smokers' as a group. The Court ruled that each smoker's case had to be tried individually on it merits. It did, however, let stand a finding that tobacco companies knowingly sold dangerous products and hid the dangers from the public. Here is a link to the FSU collection of briefs and opinions in the Engle case. Many thanks to the folks who maintain the site!

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