Suit seeks $100 million from tobacco company
Peter G. Angelos' law firm has filed a $100 million lawsuit against cigarette giant Philip Morris Inc. on behalf of a Baltimore County widow whose husband died of lung cancer in January.
The lawsuit comes a little more than a year after Maryland's highest court ruled that the Angelos firm could not pursue a class action lawsuit against the tobacco industry on behalf of smokers and their survivors. The court said sick smokers would have to sue individually.
However, an attorney working on the case indicated in a statement yesterday that the new lawsuit was not necessarily the first of many such individual claims.
"The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a family member of one of the attorneys here in our firm. We are not in the process of filing any other lawsuits at this time," said Theodore M. Flerlage.
The firm declined further comment.
Angelos' client is Nona K. Christensen of Towson, whose husband, Russell E. Christensen, was found to have lung cancer exactly three years to the day before the lawsuit was filed in Baltimore Circuit Court on Aug. 13. Christensen had a law degree and was assistant chief clerk for Judge Robert C. Sweeney, former chief judge of the District Court system.
According to the complaint, Christensen began smoking free cigarette samples in 1941, when he was 14, and later "moved on to smoking 'ten packs' which were designed to addict young smokers." Before he quit in 1976, he smoked two packs a day.
The lawsuit accuses Philip Morris and 10 other companies - including tobacco manufacturers and distributors, and Giant Food L.L.C., which sold Christensen many of his cigarettes - of wrongful death, conspiracy, two counts of fraud, failure to warn of the product's dangers, and of causing Nora Christensen to lose the companionship of her husband. The lawsuit asks for punitive damages plus a total of $100 million in compensatory damages.
Philip Morris did not return a phone call seeking comment yesterday afternoon.
Class action denied
In 1996, Angelos filed a class action lawsuit seeking damages for hundreds of thousands of Maryland smokers and other tobacco users who were addicted to nicotine or had tobacco-related diseases such as lung cancer and heart disease.
A Baltimore circuit judge certified the class, allowing the case to proceed, but the Court of Appeals overturned the decision in May of last year.
Angelos' firm said it would bring the cases individually instead. About 3,000 ill smokers had contacted the firm and said they wanted to sue, John C. M. Angelos, Angelos' nephew and a member of the firm, said at the time.
An attorney for Philip Morris declared the high court's decision a victory for the industry.
Tide may be changing
But according to Richard Daynard, a professor at Northeastern University law school and chairman of the Tobacco Control Resource Center in Boston, individual lawsuits such as Christensen's are starting to find success in courtrooms across the country.
"Until 1996, there were maybe 1,500 [individual] cases filed, but none had produced any money for the plaintiffs," he said. "What happened since then is that all of these documents are now out, demonstrating the perfidy of this industry, so that's changed things."
Daynard's organization has tracked seven recent plaintiff victories in various states, some amounting to $100 million in damages.
Still, Daynard said such cases are not easy to bring, because tobacco companies "do everything possible to raise the cost for the plaintiff," he said. "They employ a 'scorched earth' defense strategy. They never settle the cases."
An important exception to that strategy was the national tobacco settlement in 1998, in which Maryland was promised more than $4 billion.
Angelos represented the state in that lawsuit and is embroiled in a legal fight with state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. over his fee.