L.A. Lawyer Takes on Cigarette Makers, One Lawsuit at a Time
Los Angeles, Aug. 21 (Bloomberg) -- Lawyer Michael Piuze keeps his last pack of cigarettes in a drawer at home. The 20-year- old pack is a daily reminder of his struggle against the tobacco industry.
The industry has a constant reminder as well -- his lawsuits on behalf of sick smokers. After winning a $3 billion verdict last year against Philip Morris Cos., the Los Angeles attorney would like nothing more than to shut down the cigarette giants. The award -- even after a judge cut it to $100 million -- was the most ever in a suit by an individual smoker.
``I'd like to put them out of business. And I say that in a rational way,'' said Piuze, a former two-pack-a-day Marlboro smoker who quit in 1981 as a Christmas present to his 5-year-old daughter.
Piuze has returned to state court in Los Angeles where he won his record award to represent another ill smoker, Betty Bullock. Jury selection in the case began last week, and lawyers made their opening statements yesterday.
``This type of litigation is obviously intended to inflame passions'' of jurors and the general public by portraying a company ``as bad or an object of scorn,'' said Sherman Joyce, president of the American Tort Reform Association in Washington.
There have been enough large punitive damage awards against tobacco companies that the idea of ``sending a message'' through a multimillion verdict has no effect, Joyce said. ``What misconduct is to be deterred at this point? That smoking is dangerous?''
Before taking on the world's largest tobacco company, Piuze won millions of dollars in medical malpractice and auto liability cases. He learned of Richard Boeken -- the lung-cancer patient for whom he won the record verdict in June 2001 -- through San Francisco attorney Madelyn Chaber.
After winning a $51.5 million jury verdict against Philip Morris in 1999, she was swamped with calls from prospective plaintiffs.
``You couldn't really give these cases away,'' Chaber said. Piuze was enthusiastic about taking the suits, and remains so, she said. ``I don't think he knows how to not throw himself into a case.''
Piuze had an uphill battle representing Boeken. While West Coast juries have hit the tobacco industry with sizable verdicts, his client wasn't perfect. An alcoholic and former heroin addict, Boeken was an easy target in court.
During trial, Piuze focused attention on Philip Morris, rather than Boeken's actions, recalled William Ohlemeyer, the company's vice president and associate general counsel.
``Michael Piuze is obviously a very good lawyer, and he is a very efficient lawyer,'' Ohlemeyer said. ``He developed a good trial plan -- ignore his clients and in many respects, ignore the law.''
Piuze says he saw a lot of himself in Boeken; they were born two weeks apart and had similar upbringings. A former construction worker and securities salesman, Boeken began smoking two packs a day in 1957 when he was 13. Boeken was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1999 and then sued Philip Morris, accusing the company of hiding the health risk of smoking.
``He said he believed the lies,'' Piuze recalled. ``He was so angry. I did it for him.''
Philip Morris is appealing the $100 million verdict. Boeken, who did not challenge the reduced award, died in January at age 57. A suit in Portland, Oregon has matched the verdict. A jury awarded $150 million to a dead smoker's family; a state court judge cut that sum to $100 million in May.
Piuze has a history of representing clients nobody else wants. In January 2001, Piuze won $15.4 million for a California man whose General Motors Corp. vehicle rolled over after he fell asleep at the wheel. Piuze also successfully represented a client who sued after crashing his vehicle after drinking and driving 70 miles an hour.
On the 11th floor of his Wilshire Boulevard office, which overlooks the West Los Angeles Cancer Center, Piuze has accumulated boxes of tobacco documents. It is there that he is preparing for the Bullock trial against Philip Morris. While the tobacco industry has fended off most liability claims, cigarette makers have lost five verdicts in a row on the West Coast.
Piuze has had fun while in court. During the Boeken trial, Piuze said the tobacco industry's goal was ``creating doubt . . . without actually denying it.''
He used the phrase so often that Philip Morris lawyer Maurice Leiter joked that he should have T-shirts made with that phrase. The following day, Piuze did just that. After showing the shirts to the jury during his rebuttal argument, he tossed them to the defense attorneys.
Piuze said he hopes other smokers bring suits against cigarette makers. He has prepared his own ``Tobacco Trial-in-a- Box,'' a CD-ROM, which he sends to any lawyers needing help in suits against Philip Morris. The disk contains Piuze's trial plan, witness list and other documents.
Though he spent years smoking, he insists his lawsuits against the tobacco companies are not for his own revenge.
``I believe in right and wrong,'' Piuze said. ``What they are doing is wrong.''