Philip Morris Seeks to Overturn $3 Billion Verdict
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A Los Angeles judge may decide on Monday whether to overturn a jury's order that tobacco company Philip Morris Cos. Inc. pay a record $3 billion to longtime smoker and cancer victim Richard Boeken.
The cigarette maker claims the verdict amount is far too high relative to similar cases and that Boeken's testimony was tainted by past criminal convictions the Los Angeles County Superior Court jury was not allowed to hear about.
Boeken is a 56-year-old Marlboro smoker dying from lung cancer who in June won the largest ever punitive damages award for an individual.
The jury ordered Philip Morris to pay Boeken $5.5 million in compensatory damages and another $3 billion in punitive damages for the company's fraud, negligence and making of a defective product.
Boeken's attorney Michael Puize argued during the trial that the company deceived consumers about the risks of smoking.
``I've always believed very much in big business and ... I just believed what they said. I believed when they said it was not addictive and ... it's not proven that it's harmful to your health. Call me naive but I ... I believed it,'' Boeken said in a television interview after the verdict was announced.
A hearing will be held Monday before Judge Charles McCoy on two motions filed by the cigarette maker -- one calling for an entirely new trial and another which would limit the judgement to no more than $25 million.
``Huge damage awards against Philip Morris, such as the one here, will encourage virtually every Californian who smokes and develops a smoking-related disease, such as lung cancer, to sue,'' the company's attorneys said in a court filing.
The judge is expected to rule from the bench or within a few days of the hearing.
The massive award came in the first smoking and health case tried in Los Angeles County. The courthouse near downtown Los Angeles which rendered the Boeken verdict, called ``The Bank'' by local trial lawyers, has a reputation for large damage awards.
PUNITIVE DAMAGES 540 TIMES COMPENSATORY AWARD
Philip Morris called the $3 billion punitive award, which is some 540 times as high as the compensatory damages, ``grossly excessive.'' The company argues that the U.S. Supreme Court has indicated that an appropriate ratio between punitive and compensatory damages is 4 to 1.
Puize countered in a response filing that the award, while obviously large, is rational and does not violate federal standards of due process.
``The $3 billion is not going to get upheld. I would expect to see it whacked down much closer to the Philip Morris figure,'' said Gregory Keating, a torts and products liability expert at the University of Southern California School of Law.
In its filings, Philip Morris also presented numerous grounds for ordering a new trial, including arguments that the court erred in not allowing the jury to hear evidence that Boeken has three past felony convictions.
Boeken, a former oil and securities broker, pled guilty in 1993 to federal charges of participating in a fraudulent scheme to sell oil and gas properties. He also has a 1976 conviction for possession of heroin and a 1972 state conviction for possession of stolen property.
Philip Morris is arguing that since there is no evidence that Boeken relied on the company's advice regarding smoking other than his own testimony, the jury needed to know about the criminal record in order to evaluate Boeken's credibility.
Before the trial, Piuze argued that Boeken's prior legal problems had no bearing on the case and would prejudice the jury. McCoy agreed to bar the evidence.
``It is very rare for a judge to reverse himself on this type of evidence ruling,'' Keating said.
``Mr. Boeken's cancer has nothing to do with the fact that he was convicted of several crimes as long ago as the 1970s. The crimes themselves did not involve a lack of veracity,'' Puize said in his filing to the court.
The law professor said that past criminal records are often barred under the presumption that the debt to society has been paid, although a conviction for wire fraud of a plaintiff alleging that he was duped could be a gray area.
``He (Boeken) may not be Joe Gullible, but it seems the jury clearly went with the fact that the cigarette companies have been lying to us for 35 years,'' Keating said.
Three other West Coast verdicts against tobacco companies are under appeal, including a 1999 San Francisco jury verdict ordering Philip Morris to pay former smoker Patricia Henley $51.5 million, which was later reduced by the trial judge to $26.5 million.