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Jury Awards Record Tobacco Verdict

June 11, 1998

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) _ Roland Maddox, gasping for air on his deathbed, made his daughter promise to pursue a lawsuit against the tobacco company he blamed for causing his fatal lung cancer.

A year later, a jury came back with the biggest liability verdict ever against the tobacco industry, ordering Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. to pay $950,000 to Maddox’s family.

``We made history today,″ said his daughter, Angela Widdick. ``My father would be very, very proud. I don’t care if we gathered all the money in the whole wide world, it wouldn’t bring my dad back.″

Maddox smoked Lucky Strikes for almost 50 years. As his dying wish in May 1997, he made his daughter promise to see the case through.

The verdict Wednesday, following a monthlong trial, marks the first time a tobacco company has been ordered to pay punitive damages _ intended to punish and deter wrongdoing _ on the grounds that cigarettes are inherently dangerous. And it is the first time a tobacco company has been found to have conspired with other companies to hide the health risks of smoking from the public.

In the only other smoking case to involve punitive damages against a tobacco company, the blame was placed on cigarette filters containing asbestos, not smoking tobacco itself.

``This is the first standard tobacco liability case where the jury got angry at the companies and awarded punitive damages,″ said Richard Daynard, chairman of Northeastern University’s Tobacco Products Liability Project, a public health advocacy group.

``The crucial thing is there’s nothing that distinguishes this case from thousands or potentially tens of thousands of cases to follow,″ he said. ``It’s a tremendous breakthrough.″

Maddox had smoked about two packs a day before quitting in 1995. The West Palm Beach grocery store worker was diagnosed with lung cancer a year later and died in 1997 at age 67.

His family sued B&W, arguing that the nation’s third-largest tobacco company was negligent, made a defective product and conspired with other tobacco companies to hide health risks.

The six-member jury agreed and awarded $500,000 in compensatory damages and $450,000 in punitive damages. The family had already reached a settlement with the Liggett Group Inc. for an undisclosed sum; the company was a defendant because Maddox smoked one of its brands of cigarettes for a few years.

The verdict was only the third time a jury awarded damages in a tobacco liability case. One of those earlier cases was overturned; the other is under appeal. B&W said Wednesday’s verdict will also be appealed.

``We’re very disappointed,″ B&W attorney John Nyhan said. ``The jurors didn’t recognize Mr. Maddox’s responsibility for the personal choices he made.″

Maddox’s co-workers said he enjoyed smoking, laughed at health risks and called cigarettes ``coffin nails,″ company lawyers argued.

But the jury also awarded $52,249 to Blue Cross and Blue Shield as repayment for Maddox’s medical expenses.

The Maddox family had asked for compensatory damages of $850,000 and punitive damages of $16 million to $42 million, based on Brown & Williamson’s $843 million net worth.

Juror John Bowman, who smoked for 22 years, said the panel decided to limit the punitive damages because they ``weren’t out here to try to make somebody rich,″ but the jurors still wanted to send a message to the tobacco industry.

``I don’t think they will have a leg to stand on much longer,″ Bowman said. ``We feel tobacco products, especially the non-filtered ones, are dangerous.″

In the only other smoking case to involve punitive damages against a tobacco company, a jury in 1995 ordered Lorillard to pay a Los Angeles man nearly $1.9 million because his lung cancer was caused by smoking Kent cigarettes made during the 1950s that had filters containing asbestos.

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