Jury Awards $81M in Tobacco Lawsuit
Mar. 31, 1999
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) _ For 42 years, school janitor Jesse Williams puffed three packs of Marlboros a day, never believing the cigarette company would sell him something that would kill him.
Almost two years to the day after he died of lung cancer, a jury ordered Philip Morris to pay the biggest liability award ever against the tobacco industry, $81 million, for lying about the risks of smoking.
``My late husband had a dying wish,'' widow Mayola Williams said after Tuesday's verdict. ``He wanted to make cigarette companies stop lying about the health problems of smokers ... so that other people will understand that they are being used, just plain used, for the gain of money.''
It is the second major financial blow this year against the world's largest cigarette maker. A San Francisco jury awarded $51.5 million last month to a Marlboro smoker with inoperable lung cancer.
Besides that case, U.S. juries have awarded damages in smoking liability cases only three times _ twice in Florida and once in New Jersey. All three verdicts were overturned on appeal.
However, industry watchdogs and Wall Street analysts said the Oregon award may open the floodgates.
``As little as three years ago most people thought the tobacco industry was invulnerable. This case shows we have a crack in the dam,'' said John Banzhof, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health.
``It will be even easier the third, fourth and fifth time around,'' he said. ``It's like sharks smelling blood. These cases have spread a lot of chum in the water.''
Added analyst Gary Black, with the New York brokerage firm Sanford C. Bernstein & Co: ``This will persuade the industry to start thinking the tide may be turning.''
Philip Morris attorney Walter Cofer said the tobacco industry has a 40-year history of prevailing in such cases, and he promised to appeal.
``If you look at this verdict, it was not supported by the evidence,'' Cofer said. ``It was a product of passion and prejudice.''
The jury, which found Williams and the company to be equally negligent, awarded his wife and six adult children $1.6 million in compensatory damages, and $79.5 million in punitive damages for lying about the dangers of smoking.
The family had sought $101 million.
Testimony portrayed Williams, a former janitor with the Portland school system, as a nicotine addict who believed the company when it said there was no link between smoking and cancer.
Williams died at age 67, just five months after he was diagnosed with small-cell carcinoma, the deadliest form of lung cancer.
The 12-member Multnomah County Circuit Court jury, which included three smokers and four former smokers, spent a little more than two days reviewing a month of technical and often conflicting testimony from experts in such areas as cancer diagnosis, radiology and the chemistry of tobacco smoke.
In closing arguments, attorneys for the Williams family cited internal Philip Morris documents to bolster their claim that the company long knew about the cancer-causing potential of cigarettes and hid that information from its customers.
The plaintiffs' attorney, Raymond Thomas, called the tobacco company ``willful, malicious, sneaky'' in its efforts to keep smokers hooked.
One juror, April Dewees, said the panel was angered by that argument.
``They (Phillip Morris) want it to be everyone's responsibility but theirs,'' she said. ``Are people really making an informed decision when they don't have the information?''
Cofer said Williams was well aware that smoking could harm his health and could have quit ``if he'd wanted to badly enough.''
Last November, tobacco giants reached a $206 billion settlement with states, but that doesn't end individual and class-action lawsuits.
Reaction to the latest big verdict was swift. Philip Morris stock ended Tuesday as the biggest loser on the Dow Jones industrial average, dropping 8 percent. Its plunge helped push other tobacco stocks down.
``You know why?'' asked Thomas. ``Because what the whole world wants to know is whether they are going to be able to get away with it or is it over. And Wall Street voted today with the jury.''