Jacksonville, FL— Jurors handed down a $2.5 million verdict Thursday against Philip Morris for the role they found the company played in a 41-year-old smoker’s cancer death, but awarded no punitives after a second phase of trial Friday afternoon. Cuddihee v. Philip Morris, 2008CA000398.
The Florida Fourth Circuit Court jury, in Duval County, needed about four hours Thursday to conclude nicotine addiction drove Gil Cuddihee’s two decades of smoking and caused his fatal lung cancer in 1994.
And although jurors found punitives potentially warranted following their $2.5 million compensatory award, they handed down a relatively unusual $0 punitive verdict Friday afternoon, wrapping the trial.
Cuddihee, who began smoking as a teenager, continued to smoke a pack or more a day until his death. His daughter contends Philip Morris’s part in a conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking hooked her father to cigarettes and led to his cancer.
The case is among thousands that stem from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a 1994 Florida state court class-action lawsuit against Philip Morris and other tobacco companies. The state's supreme court ultimately decertified the class, but ruled the cases, may be tried individually. Plaintiffs in the so-called Engle progeny cases 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 conspired to hide the dangers of smoking.
However, in order to be entitled to those findings, plaintiffs must prove the smokers at the heart of their cases suffered from nicotine addiction that caused a smoking-related illness.
Key to the 7-day-long first phase of trial, on Engle class membership, was whether nicotine addiction of Cuddihee’s own choices led to his cancer.
Philip Morris contends Cuddihee was a willing smoker not truly interested in quitting cigarettes. During Thursday’s closings, Arnold & Porter’s Keri Arnold argued Cuddihee did not take concerted efforts to stop smoking and said he rejected pleas to quit, even after his father died of lung cancer. “These are the words of someone who wants to make his own decisions about his own health, on his own terms,” Arnold said.
But the Cuddihee family’s attorney, Dolan Dobrinsky Rosenblum’s Randy Rosenblum, contends Cuddihee tried to stop smoking but was so hooked on cigarettes he was unable to quit. In Thursday’s closings, Rosenblum said Cuddihee’s rejection of pleas to quit smoking were part of a defense mechanism seen in addicts. And Rosenblum said Cuddihee’s heavy smoking in the face of health problems, including life-long asthma and his terminal cancer, illustrated the strength of his addiction. “There is no question in this case whether Gil Cuddihee was an addicted smoker,” Rosenblum said.
Following Thursday's verdict on class membership, Friday's punitive phase focused on whether Philip Morris had done enough in the last two decades to mitigate against a punitive award. During Friday afternoon's closings Rosenblum told jurors that changes to the company and in the tobacco industry as a whole came only after federal intervention. "Is it voluntary [change] when you're being sued by the attorneys general of the United States, and then to settle those lawsuits you agree to do certain things?" Rosenblum asked, referring to the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, or MSA, between state government attorneys general and the nation's largest tobacco companies, including Philip Morris. "How is that voluntary? They could have done those things before they were ever sued."
But Shook Hardy's Hassia Diolombi argued sweeping changes within Philip Morris and throughout the tobacco industry ensured the initiatives that jurors linked to Cuddihee's cancer could not happen today. Diolombi walked jurors the billions in payments the company made under the MSA, as well as tight restrictions on marketing, and the company's own work to ensure compliance with FDA regulations. "If you award punitive damages here, the message you're sending to companies is that you'll be punished whether you reform or not," Diolombi said. "Reform must make a difference."
Email Arlin Crisco at email@example.com.
Sabrina Cuddihee is represented by The Wilner Firm’s Richard Lantinberg and Jay Plotkin and Dolan Dobrinsky Rosenblum’s Randy Rosenblum.
Philip Morris is represented by Arnold and Porter’s Keri Arnold and Shook Hardy's Hassia Diolombi.
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