Jury orders Philip Morris to pay smoker $850,000
LOS ANGELES (AP) - A jury found tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris Inc. liable in a fraud, negligence and product liability lawsuit and awarded a woman dying of cancer $850,000 in compensatory damages.
Jurors awarded Betty Bullock, 64, of Newport Beach, $750,000 in economic damages and $100,000 for pain and suffering.
A second phase of the trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 1 to determine any punitive damages.
William S. Ohlemeyer, Philip Morris' vice president and associate general counsel, said the company had no comment on Thursday's verdict pending the completion of the trial's second phase.
In a shift from its strategy in earlier civil cases, Philip Morris did not try to defend its past actions. Instead, the company turned the spotlight on Bullock and her decision to smoke.
"If she had stopped smoking .... even in the 1980s, she would not have lung cancer today," Peter Bleakley, the attorney representing Philip Morris, told jurors at the start of the trial in August.
Bullock's lawyer, Michael Piuze, argued that Philip Morris concealed the dangers of cigarettes with a widespread disinformation campaign that began in the 1950s.
Last year, Piuze won a historic $3 billion jury verdict against Philip Morris for another client. A judge reduced the award to $100 million, which Philip Morris is in the process of appealing.
Piuze said he is looking forward to the punitive phase of the Bullock case.
"I'm looking forward to seeing how the jury believes Philip Morris should be punished for its role in the premature deaths of 1 1/2 million people in California since it began this giant fraud scheme in the 1950s," he said.
Bullock is in the late stages of lung cancer, which has spread to her liver.
"She is happy she has survived long enough to see justice," Piuze said. "At the end of next week, she will have survived to see complete justice."
The case has drawn added interest because it follows a state Supreme Court ruling that grants cigarette makers a new window of immunity. The Aug. 5 decision said most statements and acts by the tobacco companies between 1988 and 1998 cannot be used as evidence against them because of a state law, which was later repealed.
That window of impunity includes tobacco executives' testimony, given to Congress in 1994, that their product was not addictive.
Some analysts thought the ruling would give cigarette makers more ammunition in their legal fights. But Thursday's verdict shows there is sufficient evidence of misconduct from earlier years to convict tobacco companies, said Edward L. Sweda, senior attorney at the Tobacco Control Resource Center at Northeastern University in Boston.
"They are really groping, looking for some way to avoid losing these cases and to deflect a long history or wrongdoing," he said.