SEBRING, FL - The first major tobacco lawsuit of 2012 ended yesterday with RJ Reynolds (NYSE: RAI) and Philip Morris (NYSE: PM) being ordered to pay a combined $2.5 million in damages to a deceased smoker's surviving husband.
Following nearly three-weeks of trial testimony a Highlands County jury found the two tobacco companies responsible for the smoking-related lung cancer of Theo Hallgren's late wife, Claire Hallgren.
After determining Claire Hallgren was 50% responsible for her addiction and awarding $2 million to Theo Hallgren in compensatory damages, the jury went on to order RJ Reynolds and Philip Morris to pay $750,000 each in punitive damages.
Hallgren's lawsuit was originally part of the 2006 "Engle" class-action case, which resulted in a historic $145 billion dollar verdict. The tobacco companies appealed, and the Florida Supreme Court later ruled each case must be tried individual. Hallgren's trial was the first of dozens scheduled across Florida state courts in 2012 with thousands of other cases still awaiting trial dates.
During closing arguments attorney T. Hardee Bass, of the firm Searcy Denny, told jurors in light of the tobacco company's current billion-dollar profits, they needed to send a strong message with a large verdict. "That's what this morning is about, punishment," said Bass. "Punishment for the harm they caused to Claire Hallgren."
Representing Philip Morris, attorney William Geraghty of Shook Hardy Bacon told the jury the company had made massive, systemic changes since the 1950's, when tobacco products were marketed more aggressively. FDA regulation and Philip Morris' own practices meant they had already taken enough corrective action. Dal Burton of Womble Carlyle, representing RJ Reynolds, said his client had also eliminated practices from the "1930's and 40's that are today an anathema."
Attorneys for Hallgren asked the jury for $19 million in damages, and the reduced verdict represents recent success tobacco company defendants have had in limiting punitive damages amounts after much larger verdicts in earlier Engle trials.
Engle trials are scheduled throughout 2012 across the state of Florida. Another is currently underway in Miami, with at least three more trials set to begin next month. Courtroom View Network covered the Hallgren trial gavel to gavel, as it has for nearly all Engle tobacco trials to date.
The case is Theo Hallgren, for the estate of Claire Hallgren v. Philip Morris USA, RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, No. 10-761 in the 10th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida.