Saturday, February 8, 2003

Tobacco firms win smoking damages case
Verdict is first loss by plaintiffs in California cigarette suits

Harriet Chiang, Chronicle Legal Affairs Writer

After a series of costly defeats, the tobacco industry won a major court victory Friday when a jury found that Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco were not responsible for a Sacramento man developing cancer after almost 40 years of smoking.

The verdict was the first in favor of a tobacco company since the state Legislature in 1998 lifted a decadelong ban on smoker suits in California.

Prior to the verdict, the tobacco industry had lost four blockbuster verdicts in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The last trial, in October, resulted in a Los Angeles jury awarding former smoker Betty Bullock a record- setting $28 billion in damages. A judge slashed the verdict to $28 million. The four verdicts are now pending on appeal.

On Friday, a Sacramento jury found that Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco were not liable for Larry Lucier, 52, developing lung cancer in June 1999. The cancer has been in remission since June 2001.

"Mr. Lucier has a serious disease, and deserves our sympathy," William Ohlemeyer, Philip Morris vice president and associate general counsel, said in a statement following the verdict. "This jury reached a correct verdict, however, based on the law and the facts presented in this case."

During the three-month trial, Lucier had charged the tobacco giants with deliberately deceiving the public about the health risks of cigarettes and targeting minors as part of their decadeslong campaign.

Lucier claimed that he was a victim of that fraud. He started the habit in the early 1960s when he was an adolescent, smoking Kents, Benson & Hedges and Winston's until June 1999, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer.

The tobacco companies argued that Lucier knew of the government health warnings on the cigarette packs but never took them seriously.

Despite the loss, Lucier's attorneys said they drew some solace from the fact that jurors informed them after the verdict that they believed the tobacco companies had hid the health hazards of cigarettes from the public.

But the lawyers said the jurors did not believe that Lucier had cancer based on the testimony of witnesses for the tobacco companies.

"It is unfortunate that misleading witnesses brought in by the tobacco companies would countermand absolute fact of a victim's illness," said attorneys Mary Alexander of San Francisco and Gary Paul of Santa Monica in a statement.

They said they would probably appeal the verdict.

Edward Sweda, senior attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University in Boston, said the anti-industry group never expected to win all the cases.

Putting the best spin on the loss, he stressed that the recent series of plaintiffs' victories "make it extremely unlikely that the companies will be able to avoid being held accountable for their wrongdoing."

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