Miami—Jurors this week handed down a $2.4 million verdict against Philip Morris for its role in the death of a 31-year-old Florida smoker, but ultimately declined to impose punitive damages against the company. Chadwell v. Philip Morris, 2010CA17931.
On Tuesday, the 11th Circuit Court jury, in Dade County, concluded James Chadwell died from smoking-related lung cancer driven by an addiction to cigarettes and Philip Morris’ participation in a decades-long scheme to hide the dangers of smoking.
However, while the jury concluded Philip Morris was potentially liable for punitive damages in addition to the $2.4 million compensatory award it issued, it ultimately issued a $0 punitive verdict Wednesday after a separate proceeding.
Chadwell was a regular smoker by the time he was 14 and would smoke up to three packs of Philip Morris’ Marlboro brand. He died in 1993, a year after doctors diagnosed him with cancer.
During Tuesday’s closings of the trial’s first phase, William Wichmann, of the Law Offices of William Wichmann, requested $15 million in compensatories for Chadwell’s widow, Brenda, plus a finding that punitives were potentially warranted.
Although jurors found Philip Morris 70% liable and apportioned the remaining responsibility to Chadwell, their conclusion that the tobacco company was liable for fraud and conspiracy means Tuesday’s compensatory award will not be proportionately reduced for fault.
The case is among thousands of suits spun from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a Florida class action tobacco case originally filed in 1994. After a finding for the plaintiff class, the state’s supreme court ultimately ruled that class members’ cases—“Engle progeny cases”—must be tried individually over the link between nicotine addiction and each smoker’s disease. Each plaintiff that proves those elements can then rely on jury findings in the original case, including the determination that tobacco companies had placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and had conspired to hide the dangers of smoking through much of the 20th century.
The cause of Chadwell’s fatal cancer served as a central point of dispute during the nine-day trial’s first phase. The defense argued a genetic condition, and not cigarettes, led to Chadwell’s cancer.
During Tuesday’s closings, Philip Morris’ attorney, Kuchler, Polk, and Weiner’s Deborah Kuchler said medical evidence showed smoking-related lung cancer was almost unheard-of in someone as young as Chadwell.
By contrast, Kuchler argued evidence supported a finding Chadwell actually died from nuclear protein of the testis cancer, or NUT carcinoma, a rare disease caused by a chromosonal mutation that causes tumors to form in the respiratory tract and other spaces along the middle of the body. Kuchler noted Chadwell’s relatively young age at diagnosis, the cancer’s particular cell type, and its poor response to treatment. “That’s the classic NUT carcinoma,” Kuchler said.
But Wichmann pointed to the rarity of NUT carcinoma and reminded jurors that Chadwell’s treating physician, Dr. Alan Lewin, and oncologist Dr. Luis Villa believed Chadwell’s cancer was caused by his heavy smoking. The evidence, Wichmann said, is “not even close. Beyond any reasonable doubt, it couldn’t be NUT midline carcinoma.”
Following the verdict on class membership, attorneys argued Tuesday afternoon over whether Philip Morris’ conduct in the last 20 years mitigated against imposing a punitive verdict for the company’s earlier role in hiding the dangers of cigarettes.
During Tuesday afternoon’s closings, Wichmann highlighted documents showing Philip Morris’ attempts to cast doubt on smoking’s risks, and said the company fraudulently marketed light and low-tar cigarettes as safe alternatives. “They did this all throughout the time Jim Chadwell was alive, [and] even [after], when he died. They did it on purpose,” Wichmann said, in requesting jurors impose am $8-10 million punitive verdict. “They did it for money.”
But Kuchler countered that the Philip Morris of the past two decades is far different than the company alleged to have deceived millions of smokers in the 20th century. Kuchler said Philip Morris, and the tobacco industry at-large, are now tightly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and she noted that the company has restricted its advertising, while publicly acknowledging the dangers of smoking.
“The things Philip Morris did in the past cannot and will not happen again.” Kuchler said. “There’s no question that the Philip Morris of today operates in a much more transparent, restricted, and controlled environment than at any time in the past.”
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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