Miami Jury Orders 3 Cigarette Makers to Pay $37.5 Million to Former Smoker
A Miami jury hit three tobacco firms with $37.5 million in damages in the case of a former smoker with cancer, the first of what eventually could be tens of thousands of similar suits brought as part of a landmark class action in Florida .
The plaintiff, 76-year-old John Lukacs, however, has promised the court that he won't seek to collect any award until after the completion of what is expected to be a lengthy appeals process for the entire class-action lawsuit, known as the Engle case.
During a two-year, multipart trial that ended in July 2000 , a different Florida jury found that the country's five largest tobacco concerns conspired to mislead the public about the dangers of smoking and levied $144.87 billion in punitive damages against them -- the largest such award in U.S. history.
To win compensatory damages, smokers who are part of the class must convince jurors in individual cases that they were addicted to cigarettes and made ill by smoking. In Mr. Lukacs's case, the jury agreed that cigarettes had caused his oral and bladder cancer.
All of the other individual cases have been dismissed or put on hold pending the outcome of the tobacco firms' appeal of the earlier verdicts. The companies argue that the original Engle trial was unconstitutional and that the case should never have been certified as a class action. That case is before a Florida appeals court.
The Lukacs trial "never should have gone forward while the Engle verdicts are on appeal," said William S. Ohlemeyer, associate general counsel of Philip Morris Cos. , one of the defendants. "This case was carved into unconstitutional bits and pieces and served to a jury that simply didn't have all the facts."
The jury found that Vector Group Ltd.'s Liggett Group unit, maker of the Chesterfield cigarettes that Mr. Lukacs smoked, was 50% at fault for his injuries. Philip Morris and British American Tobacco PLC's Brown & Williamson subsidiary each were found to be 22.5% at fault, while Mr. Lukacs himself was found to be 5% at fault.
It is unclear how much of the damage award each company would have to pay, a Philip Morris spokesman said.
Jeff Raborn, an attorney for Brown & Williamson, said, "This trial and verdict only illustrate the unfairness of the Engle decision. We remain confident the appeals courts will reverse both this verdict and Engle."
A spokesman for Vector declined to comment.
The jury's decision "is highly unlikely to worry investors" since it will essentially be put on hold until the Engle appeal is over, said Martin Feldman, a tobacco analyst at Merrill Lynch & Co .