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Smoker Awarded $51.5M in Damages

February 11, 1999

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ When Patricia Henley was 15, she watched sultry star Susan Hayward smoke on the big screen. It was cool. It was glamorous. She said no one told her it might be deadly.

Three decades later, the former three-pack-a-day smoker with inoperable lung cancer convinced a jury that Philip Morris Cos. concealed the risks and addictiveness of smoking, and the panel rewarded her by returning the largest verdict ever in a tobacco lawsuit filed by an individual _ $51.5 million.

``I feel wonderful,″ said Ms. Henley, who pledged to donate any money she receives to educate youngsters about the dangers of smoking. ``This is a great day for the children.″

Ms. Henley, 52, won $50 million in punitive damages Wednesday on top of $1.5 million in compensation awarded by the Superior Court jury a day earlier.

Although no similar verdict against the tobacco industry has survived on appeal, some say Ms. Henley’s case marks a change in fortune for cigarette makers.

Dr. Stanton Glantz, a University of California, San Francisco professor of medicine who published a book in 1996 that exposed tobacco industry documents, said he believes plaintiffs’ lawyers have learned from mistakes.

``I think you’re just beginning to see the beginning of the dam burst,″ he said. ``The evidence of wrongdoing by the industry is getting overwhelming.″

Ms. Henley thought she had pneumonia when she started coughing and having trouble singing. She was about to record a country and western music compact disc when she finally sought help.

She was diagnosed a year ago with inoperable cancer. Ms. Henley was forced to quit smoking and educate herself about what was in all those Marlboros.

``I went from knowing nothing to knowing too much,″ she said. ``We went into this case figuring we’d never beat big business.″

She sued Philip Morris in May.

Her lawyer, Madelyn Chaber, asked a jury of five men and seven women to ``send a message back to this company that the price of human life cannot be calculated into the cost of doing business.″

Punitive damages were the only way to get the attention of a company worth $3.5 billion, she said.

Two of the 12 jurors, including jury foreman George Loudis, voted against awarding the $50 million in punitive damages. He supported punitive damages of $15 million.

``Our decision was based on a lot of evidence, the suppression of known facts by Philip Morris,″ Loudis said. ``They had a lot of information they just didn’t give out.″

William Ohlemeyer, who represents Philip Morris, said Wednesday that the company would appeal.

``The jurors unfortunately let their feelings of sympathy get in the way,″ he said.

The case is California’s first since the repeal of a 1987 state law that banned lawsuits by cigarette smokers on the basis that the risks of smoking were well known. Dozens of cases pending at the time were dismissed.

In 1997, then-state Attorney General Dan Lungren joined justice officials in other states in suing the tobacco industry, and the state Legislature repealed the ban on individual lawsuits.

The tobacco industry reached a $206 billion legal settlement with states in November, but cigarette makers still face individual and class-action claims.

However, jury awards in such cases are rare. Two verdicts in Florida and one in New Jersey against cigarette makers were all overturned by appeals courts.

Although Ms. Henley’s lung cancer is in remission, she said it’s not likely she’ll live to see her granddaughters, ages 2 and 10, grow up.

``My battle’s over. It’s just a matter of time,″ she said.

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