Judge Dismisses Tobacco Lawsuit
CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) -- A federal judge has dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit against Philip Morris U.S.A., saying a Florence man could not show his wife would have smoked safer cigarettes if they were available.
U.S. District Judge Patrick Michael Duffy granted the tobacco company's motion to dismiss the claims filed by Donald LaBelle whose wife Christine died of lung cancer in 1997 at age 41. The case was to go to trial next month. Duffy's ruling was made July 5 and announced by Philip Morris on Tuesday.
LaBelle settled with three other defendants, Liggett & Myers Inc., The Brooke Group Limited and Liggett Group Inc. That settlement was sealed, said Charles Patrick Jr., an attorney who represented LaBelle.
LaBelle initially sued for compensation for his wife's medical bills, funeral expenses and his grief and suffering, Patrick said.
Christine LaBelle started smoking at 14 and at times smoked Marlboro, Marlboro Lights, Merit and Basics cigarettes, all made by Philip Morris, according to the 26-page order.
The plaintiff's ability to establish a design defect ``is inextricably tied to whether he can demonstrate that cigarettes could have feasibly been made safer,'' the judge wrote. ``If one cannot demonstrate that a product is capable of a safer design, then logically it should be viewed as inherently dangerous.''
Duffy noted the deposition of William Farone, who worked for the tobacco company from 1977 to 1984, which indicated there were several technologies to make its cigarettes safer.
``It is not enough simply to show that the product could have been designed in an alternative manner,'' the judge wrote. ``Just as the plaintiff is required to show the defect caused Mrs. LaBelle's injuries, proving that a safer design existed necessarily requires a showing that the alternative design would in fact reduce the risks of the product.''
The judge wrote there was no evidence Mrs. LaBelle would have used a safer cigarette if available.
``Throughout her smoking history, low tar alternatives were available, which she never chose to smoke,'' he wrote. ``In fact, the only evidence on record regarding Mrs. LaBelle's motivation behind choosing a cigarette was price.''
William S. Ohlemeyer, Philip Morris vice president and associate general counsel, said the company was pleased with the ruling.
``It is clear that cigarettes are an inherently dangerous product, but that fact does not entitle people who make informed choices about smoking to recover damages,'' he said. ``Cigarettes are a dangerous and controversial product, but society and the government also have determined that informed adults should have the right to choose whether to smoke.''
``I respectfully disagree with the judge's ruling,'' Patrick said. ``We have evidence a safer cigarette could be developed and when you have a safer product, the presumption should be made that the plaintiff would use the safer product.''
Patrick is with Ness, Motley, Loadholt and Richardson, the Mount Pleasant firm that has been a major player in lawsuits against tobacco companies nationwide.
In similar case earlier this year, Duffy dismissed claims against R.J. Reynolds, again ruling the plaintiff failed to show there was a safer alternative to the cigarettes smoked.
That case went to trial against other cigarette manufacturers, but the jury rejected the plaintiff's claims.