Lawyers Weigh Options After Tobacco Award Slashed
Lawyers for a former TWA flight attendant who saw her $5.5 million secondhand smoke verdict decimated by a Miami-Dade judge last week say they're considering asking for a new trial on damages.
On Sept. 13, Circuit Judge Fredricka G. Smith reduced to $500,000 the award that former flight attendant Lynn French had won after a two-week jury trial in June. French, 56, had asked for $1.06 million in damages, alleging that secondhand smoke to which she was subjected in her 27 years as a flight attendant left her with chronic sinusitis -- essentially, a perpetual cold.
French is part of a 1997 class action settlement that includes 3,125 nonsmoking flight attendants who have filed suit against tobacco companies. The settlement allowed each flight attendant to sue individually. Under the terms of the settlement, the defendant companies had the burden of proving that the disease of chronic sinusitis could not be caused by exposure to secondhand smoke.
Judge Smith on Friday issued an 11-page order saying that the jury award was "shocking" and that French's lawyers exaggerated the seriousness of her condition.
"Plaintiff's counsel's description that 'Lynn French wakes each day to a sea of painful and debilitating maladies caused by cigarette smoke' is, most respectfully, his own invention," the judge wrote.
She said the description was inconsistent with the testimony of French's physician and with the judge's own observations of French during the trial. "She appeared to be thoroughly composed and in no physical distress," the judge wrote in her order.
"She has not visited the doctor for treatment for her sinusitis for the past three years. She has continued to work as a flight attendant, full time, while successfully balancing her duties as a mother and wife. And there was no evidence that any of her daily activities have been significantly restricted by her illness."
The judge concluded that "prejudice against tobacco companies, a present-day popular villain, interfered with the jury's ability to assess the damages based on a reasonable view of the evidence."
One of French's attorneys, Adam Trop, a partner at Grover, Weinstein & Trop in Miami Beach, Fla., disputed the judge's comments.
Trop said he doesn't know how the judge could consider the tobacco companies as victims of popular prejudice in this case when, in the other three secondhand smoke trials to date, the companies have won two cases and gotten one mistrial. "I thought the jury award was appropriate, but it was more than we asked for," Trop said. "But she reduced it to less than half what we asked for. We've got to talk to our client and consider all the options on it. We're disappointed and frankly surprised."
Ken Reilly, attorney for defendants Philip Morris and Lorillard, said he was disappointed that the judge rejected the companies' request for a new trial but is glad that she slashed the jury award.
"She understood that the jury was influenced by things other than the evidence in the case," said Reilly, a partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon in Miami.