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Tobacco Companies Lose Test Case

Dec 23, 2004 | AP

In a decision that could clear the way for thousands of trials, a state appeals court Wednesday upheld a $500,000 award to a flight attendant who blamed secondhand smoke on airliners for her bronchitis and sinus disease.

The ruling for former TWA attendant Lynn French was a test case interpreting a $349 million settlement reached in 1997 between the tobacco industry and nonsmoking flight attendants. The agreement settled claims blaming illnesses on exposure to in-flight smoke before smoking was banned on domestic flights in 1990.

"The court agreed with us, and we're happy with it," said Marvin Weinstein, French's trial attorney. "Based on this, I think there are a lot more they're going to be paying."

Cigarette makers challenged the trial mechanics in French's case, and attendants put their claims for compensatory damages on hold while waiting for the ruling by the 3rd District Court of Appeal.

The nation's biggest cigarette makers have not decided whether to ask the full court to review the ruling by a three-judge panel, said John Sorrells, spokesman for Altria Corporate Services Inc. Altria is the parent of Philip Morris, the tobacco industry leader.

Calls to tobacco attorneys who handled the case were not immediately returned.

The intent of the settlement was to dispose of legal questions such as whether the industry had a duty to warn attendants about the potential dangers of on-the-job cigarette smoke, according to the panel's unsigned opinion.

Forcing attendants to do that again "a thousand times over is an absurd result that we will not adopt," the court wrote. Tobacco's position "defies logic."

Under the settlement, juries must presume that secondhand smoke causes several diseases. Attendants must prove they suffer from one of them and their illness was caused by their on-the-job exposure. Attendants claimed the reasoning of cigarette makers would have made their midtrial settlement meaningless. The appeals court agreed and backed the $500,000 award set by the trial judge, reduced from a $5.5 million jury award.

The court also decided that cigarette makers Philip Morris, Lorillard, and the merged R.J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson are jointly liable for the verdict, striking down a decision by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Fredricka Smith splitting the award based on each company's market share.

Six attendants' claims for compensatory damages have gone to juries. The tobacco industry won four verdicts, and one is awaiting retrial.

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