Woburn, MA— Jurors yesterday handed down a $1 billion verdict against Philip Morris for the role they found the tobacco giant played in the lung cancer death of a Massachusetts woman. Fontaine v. Philip Morris, 2081CV00169.
Monday’s award, delivered by a Middlesex County (Massachusetts) Superior Court jury, includes $8 million in compensatory damages and $1 billion in punitives for the 2017 death of Barbara Fontaine at age 60. Jurors found against Philip Morris on negligent design, breach of warranty, fraud, and conspiracy claims among others.
However, jurors cleared grocery chain Demoulas, a co-defendant in the case.
Fontaine began smoking as a teenager and continued for more than 40 years, favoring Philip Morris’ Parliament and Marlboro brands. Her husband, Armand Fontaine, contends that the tobacco giant is responsible for her fatal lung cancer by placing dangerous, addictive cigarettes on the market and then working for decades to conceal those dangers.
Monday’s verdict caps a 14-day trial that turned in part on whether Philip Morris cigarettes were defectively designed and what, if any, financial punishment should be imposed on the company.
During closing arguments last Thursday, Dolan Dobrinsky Rosenblum Bluestein's Randy Rosenblum, representing the Fontaine family, highlighted evidence that he said showed that Philip Morris produced and marketed addictive cigarettes during much of the latter half of the 20th century, despite knowing their cancer risks.
Rosenblum said that the company researched alternative designs, including an ultra-low nicotine, or “denicotinized” cigarette that would reduce the likelihood of addiction or make it easier for smokers to quit cigarettes entirely. And he added that one of those denicotinized designs was at the behest of the company’s president at the time, Clifford Goldsmith, who did not want to become hooked to nicotine.
“This is at a period in history when Philip Morris is denying that nicotine is addictive, that Philip Morris is denying that [the] cigarette causes lung cancer,” Rosenblum said. “And yet internally, secretly, they’re making denicotinized cigarettes for the president of that company.”
But Philip Morris argues it made good faith efforts to produce alternative designs, such as ultra-low nicotine cigarettes, but there was nothing to indicate they would be safer and, in any event, consumers rejected them.
During Thursday’s closing arguments, Shook Hardy & Bacon’s Jennifer Voss told jurors that the public health community criticized Philip Morris’ sale of ultra-low nicotine cigarettes after concluding they remained dangerous to smokers’ health. And she added consumers broadly criticized the smell and taste of the denicotinized alternatives.
“The technology was good to reduce the nicotine, but people just didn’t like it,” Voss said. “Philip Morris invested hundreds of millions of dollars in trying to get these products to market. They wanted them to succeed, but they were just failures.”
And Philip Morris attorneys argued that, even if jurors found the company engaged in misconduct, punitive damages were not warranted because the company and the industry at-large had changed drastically since the 20th-century era of cigarette marketing.
On Thursday, Shook Hardy & Bacon’s Stanley Davis reminded jurors of evidence that the company has acknowledged the dangers of smoking for decades now, while it has paid out billions of dollars to states for the public health impact smoking has had. And he noted Philip Morris supported the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s regulation of the industry.
In light of those changes, Davis argued an award of punitive damages in the case could potentially dissuade other companies from making positive changes following potential misconduct.
“It’s telling other companies it doesn’t matter what you do,” Davis said. “You’re going to be punished anyway.”
But Rosenblum countered that Philip Morris’ admission to the dangers of smoking, as well as changes to the company and the industry as a whole, came only after it faced suits from states’ attorneys general and others.
“They’re suggesting that [their changes are] somehow mitigation. And I suggest to you that is aggravation. That is a reason to punish them,” Rosenblum said. “They weren’t willing to do anything until they were forced to do it. They had to be sued in order for [changes] to happen.”
CVN has reached out to Rosenblum and Philip Morris' parent company Altria and will update this article with their comments.
Email Arlin Crisco at email@example.com.
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