Dying Ex-Smoker Awarded $20 Million
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Leslie Whiteley is a 40-year-old smoker with lung cancer who has been told by her doctors that she will probably die this year. She has also won a stinging verdict against Big Tobacco.
In a 9-3 decision Monday, a Superior Court jury ordered Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds to pay $10 million each to Whiteley and her husband.
It is believed to be the first case the tobacco industry has lost to someone who began smoking after 1969, when tobacco companies began putting government-required health warnings on cigarette packs.
Whiteley said she started smoking in 1972 at age 13. She smoked Philip Morris' Marlboros and Reynolds' Camels until 1998, when she quit shortly before doctors diagnosed small-cell lung cancer.
Her co-counsel Robert Brown said cigarette package warnings don't go far enough. They should say that 450,000 people die from smoking-related illnesses each year and that one of every two long-term heavy smokers will die that way, he said.
``There's a big level of difference between `They're not good for you' and `You've got a 50 percent chance of dying from one of several very serious diseases,''' Brown said.
The same jury awarded the couple $1.7 million in compensatory damages last week after finding the companies deceived the public about the dangers of smoking.
Spokesmen for both companies said they expected the verdict to be overturned.
``I think the result itself is just contrary to common sense, and I think that a lot of people - including (those) not necessarily on our side - will see that as well,'' said Michael York, a lawyer who represents Philip Morris but was not involved in the Whiteley case.
The industry tends to lose cases where internal documents are presented to the jury, said Richard Daynard, a law professor at Northeastern University and chairman of the Tobacco Products Liability Project, which encourages lawsuits against cigarette makers.
The San Francisco jury had access to 950 documents, most of them internal company papers.
``Where juries have seen the documents and seen what companies were thinking and doing, versus what they were saying, the jury says, `OK, Ms. Whiteley should have been a stronger person, but she's paying dearly for her weaknesses, and the tobacco companies are laughing all the way to the bank,''' Daynard said last week.
Around the country, juries have awarded damages to individual smokers only five other times, and three of those verdicts were overturned on appeal. Companies are appealing the other two, and have yet to pay any damages.
``We continue to believe that the public, including smokers, have long been aware that smoking has significant and inherent risks,'' said R.J. Reynolds spokesman Seth Moskowitz. ``And people who choose to smoke in the face of these known risks should not be financially rewarded.''