Miami, FL— A Florida jury handed down a $43 million verdict against Philip Morris Friday after finding the company responsible for the cancer death of a woman who had smoked the company's Virginia Slims cigarettes. Lipp v. Philip Morris, 2017-CA-018509.
The verdict, in Florida's 11th Judicial Circuit, includes $15 million in compensatory damages and $28 million in punitives for the 1993 lung cancer death of Norma Lipp.
Lipp, 55, had smoked between 1 and 2 packs of cigarettes a day for decades, including roughly 15 years smoking Virginia Slims. Her family claims the company’s participation in a long-running conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking hooked her to nicotine and caused her fatal cancer.
During Friday’s closings, The Alvarez Law Firm’s Alex Alvarez requested $56 million in damages, including $28 million in compensatories and $28 million in punitives.
The case is among thousands that stem from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a 1994 Florida class-action lawsuit against the nation's tobacco companies that led to a plaintiffs' verdict at trial.
The state's supreme court later decertified the class, but held that "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 placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and hid the dangers of smoking. To be entitled to those findings, however, each plaintiff must prove the smoker at the heart of their case suffered from nicotine addiction that was the legal cause of a smoking-related disease.
What drove Lipp to smoke served as a central point of contention in the 9-day trial. Philip Morris contends Lipp understood the dangers of cigarettes but was never interested in quitting in time to avoid her cancer.
During Friday’s closings, Beck Redden’s Kat Gallagher told jurors Lipp knew there was a risk to smoking at least as far back as 1969, when she and her husband first met, and she would talk about "the bad stuff" in cigarettes.
"Why would Ms. Lipp refer to 'the bad stuff' in cigarettes if she thought cigarettes posed no health risks?" Gallagher asked.
And Gallagher noted testimony that Lipp had quit smoking during each of her three pregnancies.
"If you believe [testimony] that Ms. Lipp did not smoke for months and months and months of each of her pregnancies, that means when she started smoking again it was because she chose to smoke and not because of nicotine," Gallagher said.
But the Lipp family’s attorneys argued that Lipp was so addicted to cigarettes she failed in multiple quit attempts and continued to smoke even after she was diagnosed with lung cancer.
That nicotine addiction, Alvarez told jurors Friday, was fueled by tobacco industry initiatives designed to undercut evidence of smoking’s risks and marketing campaigns designed to attract consumers to a product the industry knew was dangerous.
And Alvarez said Philip Morris’ Virginia Slims, marketed primarily to women with its photos of glamorous models and its iconic "You’ve come a Long Way, Baby" tagline, successfully targeted Lipp.
"If you look at these photographs of [Lipp] in the middle and you look at this [Virginia Slims] model, you would think they were the same person," Alvarez said, contrasting the cigarette brand’s ads with photos of Lipp.
"They zeroed in like laser-focus and hit their target."
The trial's structure was unusual among Engle litigation, with jurors deciding punitive damages at the same time they determined class membership and compensatories. Engle progeny trials throughout the last decade have generally held a separate phase to determine a punitive award, if necessary, immediately after a verdict on class membership and compensatories.
Email Arlin Crisco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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