July 13, 2010 - A Florida jury has found Philip Morris USA partially responsible for a 64-year-old woman's chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and ordered the cigarette company to pay more than $21 million in damages. In a verdict issued Thursday, a six-member jury in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., awarded plaintiff Ellen Tate $8 million in compensatory damages and more than $16 million in punitive damages, placing most of the blame on Philip Morris.
The jury found Tate, who began smoking at age 12 or 13, 36 percent responsible, and Philip Morris 64 percent responsible, which means Philip Morris would be liable for about $5.1 million in compensatory damages. The company would be responsible for the entire amount of punitive damages if the verdict is upheld, said Edward Sweda Jr., senior attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University School of Law.
The verdict was the 18th in favor of plaintiffs out of 21 cases filed in Florida since February 2009, following a Florida Supreme Court decision that opened the doors to thousands of individual suits in 2006. That year, the state's high court overturned a $145 billion verdict in Engle v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., a large class action accusing the tobacco companies of conspiring to cover up the side effects of smoking. It also declined to revive the class action status of the lawsuit.
The original class-action lawsuit filed by the family of deceased Miami Beach pediatrician Howard Engle said that tobacco companies actively sought to keep customers addicted to their products. (Significance of the Engle Tobacco Case in Florida, Legal Match)
Florida - can big tobacco survive all these lawsuits they continue to lose??
Murray Garnick, a senior vice president and associate general counsel with Philip Morris parent Altria Group Inc., said the jury verdict in the Tate case should be reversed because the court did not require the plaintiff to show that the company did anything wrong to cause her injury.
He said that federal trial courts that have considered the issue have found that allowing juries deciding cases filed in the wake of the Engle case to rely on findings from that jury violates Florida law and due process.
“The plaintiff's verdict in this case and in other recent Florida cases all should be reversed because they all suffer from the same legal error — rulings by the trial courts allowing plaintiffs to use general findings from an earlier case to prove their claims,” he said.
Gary Paige, who represented Tate, said plaintiffs in the Engle progeny cases are still required to prove legal causation even though they are allowed to use findings from Engle. He said the jury's verdict in the Tate case was fair and that he was confident it would be upheld on appeal.
About 4,000 cases, or about half of those filed after the Engle decision, are pending in federal court and have been put on hold until an appeals court can determine the constitutionality of allowing plaintiffs to rely on the Engle jury findings, according to Garnick.
The case is Tate v. Philip Morris USA, case number 2007-021723 in the Broward County 17th Judicial Circuit of Florida.
Reference: Fla. Jury Awards Smoker $21M From Philip Morris by Jocelyn Allison (Additional reporting by Ryan Davis and Elaine Meyer), Law360, 7/9/2010.
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