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Altria Must Pay $8 Million in Florida Smoker’s Death

Altria Must Pay $8 Million in Florida Smoker’s Death (Update3)

By Jef Feeley and Mort Lucoff

Feb. 18 (Bloomberg) — Altria Group Inc., the biggest U.S. cigarette maker, must pay $8 million to the family of a smoker who died of lung cancer, a Florida jury ruled in the first of 8,000 individual cases to go to trial in the state.

A state court jury in Fort Lauderdale ruled today Altria’s Philip Morris USA unit is liable for $3 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages over Stuart Hess’s 1997 death. The family’s lawyer told jurors during trial that Hess, 55, “choked his life away” smoking the company’s cigarettes from age 15. Altria makes Marlboro and Virginia Slims cigarettes.

The verdict is the first in thousands of lawsuits filed after the Florida Supreme Court refused to reinstate a $145 billion punitive-damages verdict awarded by a Miami jury to a statewide class of smokers in 2006.

Florida’s high court, which ruled the smokers can’t sue as a group, extended the time for individual smokers to sue and allowed them to rely in their individual cases on factual findings by the Miami jury, including that cigarettes are addictive and cause cancer.

The decision comes nearly ten years after the first verdict in the overall case, where a Miami jury found in 1999 that cigarette makers were responsible for the death and health problems of hundreds of thousands of Florida smokers. That ruling set the stage for the record $145 billion damage award.

“We’re going to file an appeal” of today’s award, said Kenneth Reilly, Altria’s attorney. “We’ll defend it vigorously like we have in all other cases.”

Possible Reduction

Altria fell 4 cents to $15.53 in New York Stock Exchange composite trading today. The company’s shares have risen 3.1 percent this year.

Altria’s lawyers contend Judge Jeffrey Streitfeld is likely to reduce the award because jurors found that Hess didn’t rely on the company’s statements about the safety of cigarettes after May 1982. His family can’t claim damages for that period because he was fully aware of the risks associated with smoking, the lawyers said.

Reilly said that the judge may throw out the punitive damage award and cut the compensatory award down to about $1.2 million, a reduction of 58 percent. That’s the number that jurors assigned to Hess for his share of responsibility for acquiring lung cancer from smoking.

Alex Alvarez, one of the Hess family’s lawyers, countered that “the full $8 million verdict will stand” because jurors found the company intentionally acted in a way that harmed Hess.

‘Gave Us Justice’

“The jury spoke and gave us justice,” he added.

Hess’s wife, Elaine, stood in a courthouse hallway wiping away tears after jurors handed down their decision. She said she hoped the verdict would send a message to tobacco companies.

“I just hope that all the thousands of other suffering families will also obtain similar justice,” she said.

During the two-week trial, Reilly told jurors the Hess family was seeking “an enormous amount” in the case and said he was relying on their “sound judgment” on the issue of whether the company should pay damages.

The family’s lawyers urged the Broward County Circuit Court jury in closing arguments in the damages phase of the case yesterday to award Hess’s wife and son about $132 million in total damages over his death.

“An award of only $5 million to $10 million would not mean that much to them,” Gary Paige, a lawyer for the family, told the panel.

The 8,000 cases pending in the state are split up among cigarette makers including Altria, Reynolds American Inc. and Vector Group Ltd. The cases are slated to be tried in courthouses across the state in coming months and years.

The manufacturers complain that the practice of allowing Florida smokers to rely on factual findings produced by the original 1999 case doesn’t pass constitutional muster.

‘Blame The Smoker’

“Today’s verdict was the result of an unconstitutional and profoundly flawed trial procedure,” Murray Garnick, an Altria spokesman, said in an e-mailed release. “Fundamental fairness requires the plaintiff to establish basic liability before a jury can award damages.”

Anti-smoking activists hailed the verdict as a first step in winning adequate compensation for consumers injured by the companies’ products.

“We’re delighted that the jury saw through Philip Morris’s attempts to blame the smoker” for his injuries, said Ed Sweda, a senior attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston. “We’ll certainly be looking forward to the 8,000 other trials.”

The next case is slated to begin tomorrow in state court in Ft. Lauderdale before Streitfeld.

The case is Elaine Hess v. Philip Morris, CA 07-11513, Broward County Circuit Court (Fort Lauderdale).

To contact the reporters on this story: Jef Feeley in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at; Mort Lucoff in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at

Last Updated: February 18, 2009 17:57 EST

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