Plaintiff in $21.7 mln Calif. tobacco case dies
SAN FRANCISCO, July 5 (Reuters) - Cancer has claimed the life of a California woman who scored a key legal victory when she won a $21.7 million verdict against tobacco companies even though she started smoking after they began putting health warnings on c
Leslie Whiteley, 40, died Monday at a Ventura, California hospital, leaving a husband and four children, said San Francisco attorney Madelyn Chaber. She had started smoking when she was 13.
``Leslie was the unfortunate victim of the tobacco companies' intentional targeting of children with their addictive and deadly products,'' Chaber said, announcing her client's death.
In a case that was closely watched by both sides in the legal battle over tobacco, a San Francisco jury in March awarded Whiteley $21.7 million from Philip Morris Cos Inc and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc.
The decision was seen as a huge defeat for the tobacco industry because it was the first time cigarette makers were held responsible for people who began smoking after the surgeon general announced the dangers of smoking in 1965 and health warnings appeared on cigarette packages in 1969.
The jury found that although cigarette companies complied with the order to print health warnings on packages, cigarette makers still acted with malice, knew about the hazards of smoking and deliberately misled the public about those dangers.
The jury award -- $10 million in punitive damages from each of the two companies as well as $1.7 million in compensatory damages -- was subsequently upheld by a San Francisco judge, although the tobacco companies have vowed to continue their legal appeals.
Whiteley began smoking in 1972 at the age of 13, three years after the surgeon general's warnings went on cigarette packs, and also admitted to smoking marijuana, a fact tobacco industry lawyers attempted to link to her cancer.
Her husband Leonard said his family hoped others would take up the fight against the tobacco industry. ``As a society, we need to stand up to the tobacco companies,'' he said in a statement.