Big Tobacco may be forced to make first big payout to smoking victim
A 70-year-old Florida man with lung cancer came one step closer this week to becoming the first person ever to collect money from a cigarette maker after a jury found tobacco caused the man's disease.
The Florida Supreme Court, on Wednesday, denied a request by Brown & Williamson Tobacco to hold a second hearing on the cigarette maker's appeal of a 1996 jury award of $750,000 to Grady Carter, who developed lung cancer after smoking for more than 40 years. The Supreme Court upheld the award after a hearing last November.
Under state law, Brown & Williamson, a subsidiary of British American Tobacco, was entitled to ask for the court to hear the matter again, but those second hearings are not often granted.
Now that the state appeals process is over, Carter's Jacksonville lawyer, Woody Wilner, can collect the $750,000 award, plus the interest that has been accruing since 1996, bringing the total amount to $1.1 million.
Carter would be the first individual ever to receive a payout from a cigarette company after a jury found he became sick as a result of smoking tobacco, said Wilner. Tobacco company executives and company lawyers have pointed out that, prior to this case, no jury award for damages caused by tobacco has ever survived the appeals process.
Carter sued Brown & Williamson in 1995, blaming the company for the lung cancer he developed after smoking for 44 years. A jury ruled the cigarettes were a defective product and their makers were negligent for failing to warn smokers of the dangers.
"Mr. Carter has waited a long time for this," said Wilner. "He knows this is not about the money. He's doing it because it is the right thing to do. He's been through a lot, and he is entitled to his judgment at this point."
Wilner said on Thursday that he is looking to seize Brown & Williamson assets in Florida as payment of the award because the world's third-largest tobacco company has not agreed to pay up. Besides paying the award and interest, the tobacco company will have to pay all of Wilner's fees and court costs dating back to before the 1996 trial, when he offered to settle the case for $50,000.
The tobacco company refused to settle, so state law says it must now pay the costs of its victorious opponent.
And that, said Wilner, makes this victory even sweeter.
"Brown & Williamson did everything in its power to bankrupt (Carter) and bankrupt us," Wilner said. "Now they lost and they have to pay."
Brown & Williamson plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal of the case, claiming the company should have been exempt from liability because of the warning labels on cigarette cartons, said Mark D. Smith, a spokesman for the Louisville, Ky.-based corporation. The nation's top court is the last possible avenue of appeal for the company, which makes Kool, Capri, Raleigh, Viceroy, Carlton, Lucky Strike and Pall Mall cigarettes.
Lawyers for Brown & Williamson plan to ask the court for a stay, which would prevent Wilner from collecting the award until all appeals are exhausted, Smith said.