Florida tobacco jury gives widow partial victory

A Florida jury has awarded a woman $2.47 million, wrapping up her suit against three tobacco companies. The plaintiff, now 87, said the companies were responsible for causing her husband’s death by marketing an unreasonably dangerous product. The jury agreed — for the most part.

The plaintiff’s husband died from lung cancer in 1998 at age 74. He’d smoked at least a pack a day for years, ignoring warnings from public health officials and tuning out his wife’s frequent pleas that he quit. And that’s why the award was $2.47 million instead of the $4.5 million the jurors believed the widow deserved.

The larger award was appropriate, the jury said, because the woman had taken care of her husband as he died an agonizing death. The reduction was necessary, because her husband had continued to smoke. The panel decided he was 45 percent responsible for his own death, so the award was reduced by 45 percent.

The jury denied punitive damages to the widow as well. The plaintiff had argued that tobacco companies were grossly negligent, relying on a 1954 ad placed by multiple tobacco companies that claimed cigarettes were safe. The ad also included a pledge from the companies to conduct research on the subject. The jury apparently agreed with the defense: No evidence showed that the ad or any other statements made by the companies influenced the decedent’s decision to smoke.

The case is one of the 42 cases that have gone to trial as a result of a 1994 Miami-Dade County class-action suit. The Florida Supreme Court decertified the class in a 2006 decision but allowed the cases — estimated at 8,000 — to proceed on an individual basis.

Philip Morris was ordered to pay the larger part of the damages, and the company spokesman confirmed that they will appeal. Tobacco companies have appealed the 28 cases decided against them since the class-action decision.

Anti-tobacco advocates are claiming victory. The truth won out, said one. The jury realized that the decedent was addicted to cigarettes and that the tobacco companies’ cigarettes killed him.

Source: The Palm Beach Post, “Jurors award $2.4 million to Lake Worth widow of smoker,” Jane Musgrave, 04/13/11