Recent Broward Law Blog Features

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Broward Jury Says Chain-Smoker Died From Nicotine Addiction

There is no doubt that this one case in Jeffrey Streitfeld's courtroom won't be on the national news by tomorrow nite. We have blogged about it before,

but the verdict is in, and Big Tobacco is on the Big Hook.

In a landmark legal ruling which could mean victory for thousands of similar lawsuits against big tobacco, a Florida jury has found that a chain-smoker died from lung cancer caused by an addiction to nicotine.

The verdict in the case of longtime cigarette smoker Stuart Hess paves the way for his lawyers to now argue that tobacco giant Philip Morris caused the addiction and should be forced to pay financial damages to his widow. Stuart Hess smoked for 40 years and tried repeatedly to quit, at one point resorting to hypnosis therapy, his attorneys said. He died in 1997 at age 55, still smoking.

Hess’s attorneys have argued that Philip Morris and other tobacco companies knowingly concealed and downplayed the dangers of smoking for decades, but the company’s attorneys said the evidence from the trial proved that Hess knew, as early as the mid-1960s, that cigarette smoking carried the potential for severe health risks.

While the jury agreed that Hess died as the result of an addiction to nicotine, attorneys for the tobacco company blamed Hess for his own death. They said that Hess’ own medical records indicate he was able to quit smoking many times, but always made the decision to resume, against his doctor’s orders to stop. Thousands of people are able to stop smoking each year, the attorneys said.

Hess’ case is the first of roughly 8,000 similar suits to reach trial since the Florida Supreme Court, in 2006, dismissed a record-setting $145 billion award to a state class-action suit filed by thousands of smokers and their families.
In that case, the state’s highest court set aside the financial award, but upheld the jury’s conclusion, which said tobacco companies knowingly sold dangerous products and concealed the health risks of smoking. The court said that such cases must be filed and considered on a case-by-case basis.

Hess’ attorneys are expected to ask for millions of dollars in damages. One of Hess’ attorneys promised that during the upcoming liability and penalty phases of the trial, “the jury’s going to hear a lot more about what the tobacco industry has been doing for the last several decades.”

The $145 billion damage award by a Miami jury was at the time, in 2000, the largest such punitive award in U.S. history. However, the amount was deemed excessive and set aside by the state’s Supreme Court. The lawsuit involved a group of about 700,000 smokers who said they had smoked for decades and couldn’t quit.

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