Philip Morris says it didn't persuade cancer-stricken man to start smoking
Philip Morris did nothing to persuade a man with lung cancer to begin smoking nearly 50 years ago, an attorney for the tobacco giant told jurors as trial got under way in a case accusing the company of negligence, conspiracy and false advertising.
Frederic Reller, 64, of Marina del Rey, is suing Philip Morris for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. He maintains that the nation's largest cigarette manufacturer misled him by failing for years to acknowledge that smoking is addictive and may cause cancer.
The case is the first tobacco suit to go to trial after recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court to limit punitive damages against companies.
The court suggested there should be less than a 10-1 ratio between the punitive damage award and other damages to compensate for losses.
Philip Morris attorney Beth Wilkinson said during opening statements Wednesday that the company played no role in Reller's decision to start smoking when he was 16 and that he had already become addicted to tobacco when he switched to Philip Morris' Marlboro brand in 1964.
"Tobacco companies aren't popular. You know it. We know it," Wilkinson said. "We're not talking about whether Philip Morris is a good company or a bad company. This is about whether Mr. Reller deserves money."
In his opening statement, attorney Michael Piuze, who represents Reller, told the Superior Court jurors that for decades Philip Morris and the rest of the tobacco industry lied and released false information about the dangers of cigarette smoking.
He also showed jurors a video clip of tobacco company executives testifying under oath before a congressional committee in 1994 that nicotine is not addictive. Other tobacco executives told Congress four years later that nicotine is addictive and smoking may cause cancer, he said.
"After 46 years of lying and ... giving smokers a psychological crutch to continue smoking, the industry admitted finally that it's addictive," Piuze said. "Unfortunately, it was too late for Mr. Reller and too late for millions of other Californians."
Piuze said his client might have tried to quit smoking earlier had the tobacco industry been upfront about the hazards. He pointed out that Reller motivated himself to attend Alcoholics Anonymous and has been sober for 30 years because he was aware of the health problems caused by alcohol.
Wilkinson said the dangers of smoking have been widely publicized for decades. She cited a 1964 surgeon general's report and the warnings on cigarette packs that have been in place since 1966.
The Reller case is one of three suits against tobacco companies currently being tried across the nation. The trial is expected to last about four weeks.
Thousands of other civil suits dealing with smoking and health issues are pending, said Edward L. Sweda, senior attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project at the Northeastern University School of Law in Boston.
Four of the last five cases brought by smokers against tobacco companies in California courts have ended in judgments of millions of dollars to plaintiffs. All are in various stages of appeal.