Loss for Cigarette Maker in First Florida Tobacco TrialFeb 13, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP
In the opening phase of the first of 8,000 tobacco trials in Florida, big tobacco lost. According to Bloomberg News, a jury made up of three men and three women agreed that deceased smoker Stuart Hess’s nicotine addiction caused his 1997 lung cancer death. The move is seen as a significant setback for Altria, and its subsidary Philip Morris USA, said Reuters.
A lawyer for Hess’s family and widow said he was pleased with the recent verdict and said the jury will be hearing much more about the damage tobacco has caused in the past few decades, reported Bloomberg News, which noted that, in this case, there are at least two more possible phases to the trial that could involve damage assessments against Altria Group Inc. Altria is the largest cigarette maker in the United States.
Hess's wife blamed an addiction to nicotine for her husband’s death; Stuart smoked for four decades and died at age 55. Altria argued that Hess had quit smoking from time-to-time, indicating—it felt—that Hess was really not addicted to nicotine, reported Bloomberg. Lawyers for the Hess family said that Stuart had tried, but was unable to quit smoking because of his nicotine addiction, said Reuters.
In 1994, thousands of Florida smokers brought the class-action lawsuit against tobacco companies for the injuries they sustained from smoking. In 1999, the jury agreed that cigarette makers deceived smokers about the safety of their product, and awarded $145 billion in punitive damages to the plaintiffs; a Florida appeals court reversed the decision in 2003.
In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court refused to reinstate the punitive damages and stripped the lawsuit of its class-action status; however, the Florida court allowed individuals who could have won judgments under the original verdict to use findings from the yearlong jury trial to bring new cases against the cigarette makers, which means that the smokers will not have to prove the issues in the follow-up cases.
In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the tobacco companies’ appeal of the Florida court’s decision, which was mainly an attempt to prevent Florida smokers from using the 1999 jury findings in their lawsuits. Hess’s case is one of thousands filed following the class-action suit rejection by the Florida Supreme Court.
In the second phase of the Hess trial, which begins today, the jury will be determining if Altria is at fault and if damages should be awarded; the third and final phase will be used to determine punitive damages, said Bloomberg.