Jury gives $6.9 million to two smokers, opens door for huge punitive damages

Posted: Friday, April 07, 2000

MIAMI (AP) - A jury Friday ordered the tobacco industry to pay two smokers $6.9 million, opening the door to a possible multibillion-dollar punitive verdict that cigarette makers fear could send them into bankruptcy.

The jury in the landmark case awarded a third smoker a record $5.8 million but decided he couldn't collect because a four-year statute of limitations had expired on his claim. The judge said he would decide later how to handle that award.

The three smokers had asked for $13.2 million in compensatory damages: a total of $4.2 million in medical costs and other past and future expenses and up to $3 million each for pain and suffering.

The jury, which deliberated for more than two days, heard the life stories and microscopic details of cancer in Inglis nurse Mary Farnan, 44; Orlando clockmaker Frank Amodeo, 60; and New Port Richey housewife Angie Della Vecchia, who died three weeks after the initial verdict last year at age 53.

Both women started smoking at 11. Della Vecchia smoked for 40 years and Farnan for 29. Amodeo started smoking at 14 and kept it up for 34 years.

The jury awarded Farnan $2.85 million and the estate of Della Vecchia $4.023 million. The jury also awarded $5.831 million to Amodeo, but ruled the statute of limitations had expired on his claim.

The same jury, which began hearing the case 18 months ago, ruled last July that the industry fraudulently conspired to produce a dangerous, addictive product that caused 29 illnesses, including cancer and heart disease.

Around the country, juries have awarded damages to individual smokers only six times. Three verdicts were overturned, two are on appeal, and one was returned last month with a then-record $1.72 million compensatory award to a single smoker.

The industry has yet to pay anything in a smoker's case but has started paying on $246 billion in settlements with states.

The Florida state court lawsuit was the first smokers' class-action to come to trial. The compensatory issue has been overshadowed by industry fears of a ruinous $300 billion award in the next phase seeking punitive damages for an estimated 500,000 sick Florida smokers. But under state law, a punitive verdict cannot put a company out of business.

Circuit Judge Robert Kaye told jurors he would call them back in a couple of weeks to start the punitive damage phase.

Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the verdict ``augurs very badly for the tobacco industry at the next phase because the verdict is exceptionally large.''

``The verdict itself is a potentially crippling blow to the tobacco industry because it opens the door now to a possible massive punitive damage verdict,'' Myers said. ``Its size demonstrates the same jury that found the tobacco companies guilty of widespread serious wrongdoing last summer has apparently not forgotten what they heard earlier.''

Dan Webb, lead tobacco attorney in the case, said: ``We're looking forward to trying the next phase of this case. We have never believed this jury would award a large amount of damages to thousands of unidentified smokers.''

Cigarette makers hoped to be spared some liability by asking the jury to decide based on brands smoked rather than industry behavior, but that strategy failed as the panel ruled against all companies and industry support groups.

Several tobacco-growing states have rushed to protect the industry from any crippling punitive award by setting a cap of $25 million to $100 million on the amount a company has to post as bond to pursue an appeal.

Smokers' attorney Stanley Rosenblatt argued all three plaintiffs became addicted in the 1950s long before they became aware of the health dangers of smoking even though the industry was discovering links to disease and addiction at the same time.

The industry disputed smoking as a cause of their cancers, fought the smokers' addiction claims and said they should not be rewarded for continuing to smoker years after health dangers became widely known.

The first segment of the trial began in October 1998, and testimony in the compensatory phase began last November.

The defendants are Philip Morris Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Brown & Williamson, Lorillard Tobacco Co., Liggett Group Inc. and the industry's Council for Tobacco Research and Tobacco Institute.



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