Smoker's suit vs Philip Morris set to begin in LA
LOS ANGELES, Aug 19 (Reuters) - The trial of a California smoker's suit against Philip Morris that begins on Tuesday is being closed watched to see if a recent ruling by the state's highest court will help turn the tide in a stream of California jury verd
It is the first tobacco liability case to go to trial since the state's Supreme Court granted protection to cigarette makers for actions between 1988 and 1998.
Opening arguments in the lawsuit, filed by 63-year-old Betty Bullock, who started smoking in the 1950s and was diagnosed with lung cancer last year, are scheduled for Tuesday in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Earlier this month, the California Supreme Court ruled that a 1998 statute did not retroactively repeal the state's 1988 ban on lawsuits against cigarette makers. Instead, the court found that while the law continued to provide immunity for tobacco companies in product liability actions, it was only during the 10 years when the statute was in force.
Bullock, represented by attorney Michael Piuze, claims that Philip Morris Cos. (NYSE:MO - News) ,the world's biggest tobacco company, made and sold a defective product and concealed the nature of the dangers posed by cigarettes as well as nicotine addiction.
Philip Morris disputes the claims. "This is another case that poses the question of freedom of choice and personal responsibility," said Michael York, an attorney for the New York-based company.
He noted that it is too soon to tell whether the state's ruling will be a factor in the Bullock case.
Piuze was also the attorney for Richard Boeken, a Marlboro smoker whose lawsuit against Philip Morris resulted in the industry's worst defeat by an individual smoker. In June 2001, a Los Angeles jury ordered the company to pay Boeken, who has since died, over $3 billion in punitive damages, an amount that was later reduced by a judge to $100 million.
Philip Morris is currently appealing that verdict as well as two other multi-million-dollar California verdicts in lawsuits filed by smokers Patricia Henley and Leslie Whiteley.
Each of the those lawsuits involved documentation and testimony suggesting that cigarette makers concealed the risks of smoking. The latest ruling would prevent plaintiffs from using records of that type dating from 1988 through 1997, but evidence of earlier statements and records is not affected.
Also at stake are 75 pending tobacco lawsuits in a state where juries have so far been willing to award massive judgments to sick smokers.