A man who got lung cancer after smoking for 44 years was awarded a record $750,000 Friday, marking only the second time the tobacco industry has been ordered to pay damages in a liability case.
The state Circuit Court jury said that the cigarettes were a defective product and that their makers were negligent for not telling people how dangerous they were.
Grady Carter, 66, had asked for at least $1.5 million from the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co., the maker of Lucky Strikes.
“This is a severe blow to the industry,” said Allan Kaplan, a tobacco stock analyst with Merrill Lynch. “We knew that when you keep running cases, some jury is going to vote in favor of the plaintiff.”
Word of the verdict in the closely watched case came shortly before the stock market closed, sending shares of Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco down 13 percent. American Brands, which sold the Lucky Strikes brand to Brown & Williamson in a 1994 deal, was down moderately, as was B.A.T., Brown & Williamson’s parent company.
So far, in at least 19 tobacco liability suits, the industry has yet to pay a cent in damages.
The six-member jury deliberated for 9 hours over two days. As the verdict was announced, a smiling Carter leaned back and grasped his wife’s hand. “Somebody needed to take these people on,” he said later. “A lot of people are dying of lung cancer.”
Thomas Bezanson, an attorney for the tobacco company, said he expects to appeal.
Another tobacco company, Phillip Morris USA, called the decision an aberration. “Jurors in past smoking and health cases have traditionally used their common sense in weighing the evidence and deciding not to award money damages to plaintiffs who made the decision to smoke,” Phillip Morris said.
But Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, whose state is one of at least 10 suing cigarette makers to recover public money spent treating people with tobacco-related illnesses, applauded the verdict.
“This is a devastating blow to the tobacco barons and a joyous day for our citizens,” Chiles said. “Before today, tobacco has never had to pay a nickel for the poisonous grip it has on many of our people or the damage it does to taxpayers.”
The only other monetary award against a tobacco company in a liability case was won in 1988 by the family of Rose Cipollone of New Jersey. But the $400,000 award was overturned on appeal, and the lawsuit was dropped in 1992.
In a 1990 case, a jury in Mississippi agreed that cigarettes killed long-time smoker Nathan Horton. But it awarded no damages because it found American Tobacco and Horton to be equally at fault.
Carter testified he began smoking in 1947 and tried to quit several times but would succumb to his cravings and light up again. He kicked the habit only after being diagnosed with cancer in 1991.
He had the upper lobe of his left lung removed that same year and is apparently cancer-free, but is being closely watched by his doctors.
Brown & Williamson had argued that Carter, a retired air traffic controller, was aware of the dangers.
“He continued smoking Lucky Strikes because he liked them,” tobacco company attorney Bruce Sheffler said in closing arguments. Family members and doctors couldn’t persuade Carter to kick the habit, Sheffler said, adding, “Mr. Carter became motivated when he started coughing up blood.”
But Sheffler said it was Carter’s right to smoke and his right to determine when to quit.
Carter smoked Lucky Strikes until 1972, when he switched brands. Cigarette warning labels went on packages in 1966 and were changed in 1970. Under law, cigarette companies cannot be held liable after 1970 for not warning smokers.
Sam Gaskins, 60, the foreman of the five-man, one-woman jury, said internal documents from the tobacco company factored in the decision.
“It gives a window into how the cigarette industry denied for years that cigarettes are addictive,” said Carter’s attorney, Norwood Wilner. “They knew it all along.”
Click here to comment on this story »