France Debates Smoking Case Ruling
PARIS (AP) - A court's ruling that made a tobacco company partially responsible for the death of a three-pack-a-day smoker has sparked debate throughout France, where smoking is considered more a social grace than a disgrace.
For the first time, a court ruled Wednesday that Seita, the manufacturer of quintessentially French cigarette brands Gauloise and Gitanes, shared the blame for the death of a 49-year-old smoker from lung and larynx cancer this year.
The ruling might come as no surprise in the United States, where tobacco companies agreed last year to pay about $206 billion over 25 years to settle lawsuits against them by 46 states over the costs incurred to treat sick smokers.
But in Europe, where smoke-filled cafes and bars are the norm, such civil suits are few.
In France, where 60,000 people die of smoking-related diseases each year, the court ruled that Seita was at fault for not giving committed smoker Richard Gourlain enough information about the dangers of his habit.
But it also blamed the smoker, dividing responsibility between the two parties based on when the first law forced manufacturers to display warnings on cigarette packets.
The court ordered a medical report into the cause of Gourlain's cancer, on which it would base its decision on damages to be paid by the companies. Gourlain's family was asking for about $500,000.
``It's a first in France. Seita has been declared responsible for the damages it caused to a smoker though a lack of information,'' Gourlain family lawyer Francis Caballero said after the ruling.
Gourlain brought a lawsuit against Seita in December 1996. His widow continued the action after his death this year.
The judge held Seita entirely responsible between 1963-69, during which time Gourlain was a minor.
He found Seita carried 60 percent of the responsibility from 1969 to when the law on warning consumers was introduced in 1976.
Thereafter, the judge said, Gourlain alone was responsible.
Seita, which has agreed to merge with Spanish tobacco giant Tabacalera, said in a statement it would appeal the ruling.
``Seita is astonished by this ruling,'' the company said. ``It was with full knowledge that (Gourlain) took the decision to smoke and continue smoking despite his multiple health problems.''
Gourlain's case stood in sharp contrast to similar legal efforts by 53 lung-cancer victims in Britain to win damages in Britain's first class-action lawsuit against tobacco companies Gallaher Ltd. and Imperial Tobacco Ltd.
Most of the plaintiffs dropped the case in February because their lawyers said the chances of victory were slim.
But elsewhere in Europe, smokers also were bringing suits against tobacco companies.
In Poland, a country of heavy smokers, the first suit against a tobacco company began this week. And in the Netherlands, a man suffering chronic emphysema was suing R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris and two other tobacco companies.
In Spain, the family of Emilio Carraminana, who died of lung cancer at 43 after having smoked black Ducados for 27 years, launched a case against Tabacalera in 1998.