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Smoker Awarded $51.5M in Damages

February 11, 1999

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ A jury awarded a former three-pack-a-day smoker $50 million in punitive damages Wednesday in her lawsuit against a tobacco company, bringing the total award to $51.5 million.

A day earlier, the jury ordered Philip Morris Cos. to pay $1.5 million in compensatory damages to Patricia Henley to cover medical expenses, pain and suffering.

``I feel wonderful,″ said 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.″

Henley, 53, of Los Angeles, was diagnosed last year with inoperable lung cancer. She alleged the tobacco company hooked her on cigarettes when she was 15 and misled her about the dangers. Her cancer is in remission after chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

Before jurors deliberated for four hours Wednesday, Henley’s attorney told them that punitive damages were the only way to get the attention of a $3.5 billion company. Madelyn Chaber asked the jury to award her client $15 million in punitive damages.

William Ohlemeyer, who represents the tobacco company, told the jury that the tobacco company has been punished enough.

``There is nothing you can do now in this lawsuit that sends a clearer message,″ he said.

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

``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.″

The case is California’s first since the repeal of a 1987 state law that banned such lawsuits under the notion 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 Legislature responded to criticism of the ban by repealing it.

The tobacco industry came to a $206 billion legal settlement with states in November, but cigarette makers still face class action suits and individual suits by smokers.

However, jury awards in such cases are rare.

A Florida appeals court earlier this year overturned a Jacksonville jury’s $1 million judgment for the family of a dead smoker against Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.

In 1996, another Jacksonville jury awarded $750,000 to a man who blamed his lung cancer on smoking. Last June, an appeals court threw out the verdict, saying the plaintiff waited too long after he fell ill to sue and that a 1969 federal law bars lawsuits from claiming the wording of cigarette warning labels is inadequate.

The first award against a tobacco company in a liability case was won in 1988 by the family of Rose Cipollone of New Jersey. But that $400,000 verdict was overturned on appeal, and the nine-year lawsuit was dropped when the family could no longer afford to continue.

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