Fort Lauderdale, FL—Jurors Friday awarded $650,000 in punitive damages on top of a nearly $5.5 million compensatory judgment earlier in the week to the widower of a woman with a half-century smoking habit that left her with coronary heart disease and lung cancer. Martin v. Philip Morris, et al., 2007-CV-036440.
Friday's punitive verdict included $450,000 against Philip Morris and $200,000 against R.J. Reynolds for their role in the smoking-related diseases of Carole Martin, who had her first cigarette when she was 12 years old and smoked up to two packs a day for 55 years before she died at 81, after bouts of lung cancer and coronary heart disease.
The $650,000 punitive award was a fraction of the $16-plus million in total punitives Kelley Uustal's Eric Rosen, an attorney for Matin's widower, Stanley Martin, requested against the tobacco companies in closings.
The punitive award was also less than the amounts suggested by defense attorneys themselves, with Shook Hardy's William Geraghty suggesting a $500,000 award, if any, against Philip Morris could be reasonable and King & Spalding's Ursula Henninger suggesting a $220,000 award, if any, was reasonable.
The Martin case is one of thousands of similar lawsuits against the nation's tobacco companies, spurred from a 1994 Florida class action suit. Jurors in the original class action found for the plaintiffs and concluded the companies knowingly produced dangerous, addictive cigarettes and hid those dangers from the public. The Florida Supreme Court decertified the class, but allowed the jury's findings to stand. Individual "Engle-progeny" plaintiffs must prove the smokers at the centers of their cases suffered from nicotine addiction that caused a smoking-related disease in order to be entitled to the original jury's findings on liability.
While the first phase of trial focused on Martin's membership in the class and compensatory damages for her death, the day-long punitive phase centered largely on whether changes in the tobacco industry over the last two decades mitigated against a large punitive award.
During Thursday's closing arguments, Rosen told jurors the companies' decades of fraud warranted a heavy punishment for Martin's death, despite tighter industry restrictions and payouts to state governments. "R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris may say that they are changed companies, that they are different companies. That doesn’t change the fact that they committed the type of conduct that they committed, misconduct for decades. It doesn't change that," Rosen said. "And the fact that they settled into a voluntary settlement agreement in the mid-1990s and 2000, and they were regulated by the FDA in 2009, that doesn’t change the harm that had already been done to Carole. That didn’t help her."
But Geraghty reminded jurors tobacco companies were so tightly controlled they could never engage in the kind of conspiracy that jurors found led to Martin's cancer. "The FDA has the power to determine what goes into a cigarette, what comes out of a cigarette, and what cigarette companies like Philip Morris can say about their products," Geraghty said in his closing. "You now know from the evidence you heard today the things that Philip Morris did in the past cannot and will not happen again.”
Henninger added that, beyond federal regulations, Reynolds' own stance on cigarettes has changed, as she noted the company openly acknowledged the dangers of cigarettes and invested in research on safer tobacco products. "Everything has changed, Henninger said. "We're doing things the way you'd want a tobacco company to do things today. I urge you to decline punitive damages against Reynolds."
Eric Rosen and Todd McPharlin, of Kelley Uustal, represent Stanley Martin.
William Geraghty, of Shook Hardy, represents Philip Morris.
Ursula Henninger, of King & Spalding, represents R.J. Reynolds.
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