Jacksonville, FL—A state court jury Thursday linked Philip Morris cigarettes to a Florida woman’s laryngeal cancer and her eventual death, but limited its verdict to six figures in medical expenses and found the tobacco company responsible for less than 1/20th of that amount. Douglas v. Philip Morris USA, 2008CA000386.
Jurors in the state’s Fourth Circuit, in Duval County, awarded $131,371 in medical expenses for June Douglas’ cancer, but rejected her husband Robert’s claim for loss of companionship against the tobacco company. Douglas’ lawyers had suggested a $13.2 million award on that claim, as well as possible punitives, which jurors also denied.
June Douglas was a regular smoker by the time she was 17, in 1952, and continued smoking for 40 years, until doctors diagnosed her with laryngeal cancer and removed her voice box in 1992. She died in 2008 after suffering from a variety of illnesses, including respiratory disease. Her husband contends Philip Morris’ participation in a wide-ranging scheme to conceal the dangers of cigarettes led to his wife’s nicotine addiction, laryngeal cancer, and eventually her death.
The case is spun from a massive class action lawsuit, Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., originally filed in 1994. After a trial victory for the class members, the state’s supreme court ultimately decertified the class, but ruled that so-called Engle progeny cases may be tried individually. Engle progeny plaintiffs are entitled to the benefit of the jury's findings in the original verdict, including the determination that tobacco companies had placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and hid the dangers of smoking, if they prove the smoker at the heart of the case suffered from nicotine addiction that was the legal cause of a smoking-related disease such as lung cancer.
While Thursday’s verdict found Douglas was a class member, it rejected the plaintiff’s fraud and conspiracy claims, finding Douglas did not rely on deceptive tobacco industry statements in making her smoking decisions.
The jury also apportioned only 4% of responsibility to Philip Morris, likely reducing the award to about $5,254. Jurors apportioned 90% of responsibility to Douglas herself and 6% to non-party R.J. Reynolds, whose cigarettes Douglas also smoked.
The 10-day trial swung largely on June Douglas’ knowledge of smoking’s risks and whether she did enough to try to quit smoking in time to avoid her illnesses.
During Wednesday’s closing arguments, Michael Weisman, of The Law Office of Michael Weisman, walked jurors through decades of Philip Morris advertisements and statements he said hooked Douglas to a cigarette habit she did not know was dangerous until it was too late.
Weisman noted, for example, that Douglas switched to Philip Morris’ Marlboro Lights, which he said the company falsely marketed as safer because of “low” tar and nicotine. “What would an ordinary consumer… take from the representation that [Marlboro Lights] had lower tar and nicotine? There’s only one possible conclusion,” Weisman said. “’I’m getting something that’s safer for me. What else could you possibly conclude from lower tar and nicotine?”
However, Philip Morris argued Weisman knew the dangers of smoking and failed to make a concerted effort to stop. During Wednesday’s closings, Beck Redden’s Kathleen Gallagher told jurors Douglas only tried to stop smoking a handful of times in 40 years, and never continued a quit attempt for more than a few hours at a time.
“Mrs. Douglas never did anything meaningful, never took action to quit smoking,” Gallagher said, adding evidence showed Douglas could have likely avoided cancer if she had stopped smoking by the early 1970s. “If she had quit back then, we wouldn’t be here.”
Email Arlin Crisco at [email protected].
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