Jury awards former smoker $28B in punitive damages
LOS ANGELES (AP) A Superior Court jury on Friday awarded $28 billion in punitive damages to a former smoker who sued Philip Morris for fraud and negligence.
The 12-member jury made the award to Betty Bullock, 64, of Newport Beach, who started smoking when she was 17 and was diagnosed last year with lung cancer that has since spread to her liver. (Related item: Punitive Damages Award (Bullock v. Philip Morris, et al.))
Last month, the same jury awarded Bullock $750,000 in economic damages and $100,000 for pain and suffering.
Before Friday's verdict, the largest individual jury award against a tobacco company was $3 billion, won in June 2001 against Philip Morris U.S.A. by Richard Boeken, a former heroin addict with cancer who died in January. That award, however, was later reduced by a Superior Court judge to $100 million.
Both awards were won by Michael Piuze, a Los Angeles attorney who had never before tried a tobacco case before Boeken's.
During Bullock's trial, Philip Morris did not try to defend its past actions. Instead, the company turned the spotlight on Bullock and her decision to smoke. The strategy was a major shift from previous defense efforts.
"If she had stopped smoking ... even in the 1980s, she would not have lung cancer today," Peter Bleakley, the attorney representing Philip Morris, told jurors at the start of the trial in August.
Piuze argued that Philip Morris concealed the dangers of cigarettes with a widespread disinformation campaign that began in the 1950s.
"We will show what I believe is the largest fraud scheme ever perpetrated by corporations anywhere," Piuze said in his opening presentation.
Piuze used photographs of Bullock, cigarette ads from her teenage years and internal tobacco industry documents to lay out his contention that Philip Morris concealed the dangers of cigarettes with a widespread disinformation campaign that began in the 1950s.
The defense denied such a campaign ever existed.
Philip Morris said it would appeal and that the punitive damage award was well in excess of the four-to-one ratio to compensatory damages that the U.S. Supreme Court has suggested approaches the constitutional limit of such awards.
"This jury should have focused on what the plaintiff knew about the health risks of smoking and whether anything the company ever said or did improperly influenced her decision to smoke or not to quit," said William Ohlemeyer, Philip Morris Companies vice president and associate general counsel. "Instead, it appears that this decision speaks to more general policy issues regarding smoking that can't fairly be decided in lawsuits like this."
"At this point, it's really open season on the industry," said Richard Daynard, a law professor at Northeastern University in Boston and chairman of the Tobacco Products Liability Project. "Juries all around the country are sending a message that this conduct was not only totally inexcusable but that it was so outrageous there is no amount of money that would be enough to punish the people who perpetrated it."
The Bullock case has drawn added interest because it follows a state Supreme Court ruling that grants cigarette makers a new window of immunity. The Aug. 5 decision said most statements and acts by the tobacco companies between 1988 and 1998 cannot be used as evidence against them because of a state law, which was later repealed.
Some analysts think the ruling will give cigarette makers ammunition to overturn three recent plaintiff awards in California including the Boeken verdict.
"I didn't think anyone thought Mike Piuze would be able to top what he had gotten in the Boeken case, but he certainly did. And he topped what he asked for. He only asked for $20 billion. It's funny to say, but that's all he asked for," Daynard said.