Ex-smoker receives $1.1 million check in 1st tobacco settlement
They said it would never happen. But Grady Carter, a 70-year-old ex-smoker who lost a lung to cancer, proved the tobacco industry and legal analysts wrong when he walked away from his lawyer's Jacksonville office yesterday with a $1.1 million check from
Carter, a retired air-traffic controller who used to live in Plantation, is the first person to collect money from a tobacco company after beating them in court. A jury awarded him $750,000 in compensatory damages in 1995, and that amount continued to accrue interest as the case wound its way through the appellate courts.
Carter was pragmatic about his victory.
"I've lost a lung and Brown & Williamson lost $750,000, so I think I came out on the short end of the deal," he said during a telephone call from his Orange Park home Thursday evening.
Carter's lawyer, who handed the check over to his client during a press conference, was more grandiose.
"Brown & Williamson has tried everything to stop this from happening and they couldn't. Try as they might, they were ultimately, and for the first time, held responsible for the damage caused by their product," said Woody Wilner, Carter's attorney.
But a Brown & Williamson spokesman urged Carter not to spend the money. The Florida Supreme Court upheld the verdict against the cigarette maker, but the company still plans to appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court, said Mark Smith, a company spokesman. The cigarette maker claims it should have been exempt from liability because of the warning labels on cigarette cartons, Smith has said.
But Wilner scoffed at that argument. He considers the case over.
On Wednesday, the state Supreme Court refused to allow the cigarette maker to avoid paying Carter while the company pursues the federal appeal. And on Thursday, Carter's lawyers accepted a wire transfer from the company for the full $1,087,191. The company must also pay Wilner's fee.
Wilner took the case in 1995, after several attorneys refused to take on the tobacco company.
Carter, who started smoking as a teen in the late 1940s, was finally able to kick the habit in 1990. But the following year, after coughing up blood, he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
About two years later, he fumed as he sat before his television and watched executives from the world's largest cigarette companies testify before Congress that their products were not addictive.
"I knew how hard it was for me to quit, and I felt I had to do something about it," Carter said.
But many lawyers were not willing to use their own money to take on tobacco. Others before them had tried, only to run out of cash as the tobacco companies, which had deeper pockets, dragged the cases out through the appeals courts. Finally, Carter found Wilner, who had handled some asbestos cases and in the process come across documentation about the hazards of cigarette smoking.
"My goal was for the cigarette company to say that nicotine was addictive and that smoking did cause severe medical problems," said Carter. "At my trial they said it wasn't addictive and it had not been proved that tobacco caused health problems, but I knew better."
And Wilner said that he and the other lawyers in his firm who worked on the case were the first to bring forth evidence about the hazards of cigarettes that had been discovered by tobacco industry scientists who later became whistleblowers. And the legal team also presented evidence showing there were safer alternatives the tobacco companies had chosen not to employ, Wilner said.
Last year, in the statewide class action case against the industry, a jury in Miami-Dade Circuit Court ordered the country's five largest cigarette manufacturers to pay a record $145 billion to Florida's sick smokers. Brown & Williamson, based in Louisville, Ky., was one of the firms to lose in that case. The industry is appealing it.
Anti-tobacco activists hailed Carter's payout as pivotal.
"What this means is that the tobacco industry and their friendly Wall Street analysts, who have been saying for years that plaintiffs' lawyers will never get involved in these cases until someone actually sees the money, are going to have to change their tune," said Richard Daynard, president of the Tobacco Control Research Center at Northeastern University in Boston. "Today, they paid."
Carter, who has to have a checkup every three months and worries every time he has a slight cough, said he didn't enter this courtroom battle for the money. His plea is much more personal.
"If anyone out there is smoking, please stop. If you haven't started, don't," he said.