February 18, 2009 / 10:05 PM / 9 years ago

UPDATE 2-Florida jury awards $8 million in tobacco lawsuit

(Corrects misspelling in 9th paragraph)

Tom Brown

MIAMI, Feb 18 (Reuters) - A Florida jury awarded $8 million on Wednesday to the widow of a smoker whose death was caused by his addiction to cigarettes in a major potential legal setback for tobacco giant Philip Morris.

The jury in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, decided in favor of Elaine Hess, the widow of longtime smoker Stuart Hess, who died of lung cancer in 1997 at age 55. He had smoked for 40 years.

Philip Morris USA, a unit of Altria Group Inc (MO.N), said it would appeal the verdict, in the first of potentially thousands of cases to go to trial in Florida.

But Alex Alvarez, an attorney for Elaine Hess, said he and other lawyers who worked on the case felt vindicated after winning $5 million in punitive damages on Mrs. Hess’ behalf and $3 million in compensatory damages.

“She’s a 110-pound elementary school teacher and she went up against Philip Morris, one of the most powerful companies in the world, and won,” Alvarez told Reuters. “We have paved the road for these other litigants to come in and seek their day in court as well. We’re happy to be able to do that for them.”

He was referring to about 8,000 cases filed following the Florida Supreme Court’s landmark decision in 2006 to throw out a $145 billion jury award in a class-action lawsuit filed in the early 1990s by Miami Beach pediatrician Howard Engle on behalf of thousands of sick smokers.

In its 2006 ruling that threw out the $145 billion lower- court award in the Engle case -- the first smokers lawsuit to be certified as a class action -- the state Supreme Court left in place key findings that tobacco companies knowingly sold dangerous products and concealed the risks of smoking.

That promised to help the thousands of smokers who filed individual lawsuits against the tobacco companies because they would not have to prove those issues again.

In a statement saying it would seek appellate review of the case and of what it called the “constitutionally flawed” punitive damage verdict, Philip Morris vowed to fight on against all pending litigation in Florida.

“We will vigorously defend each of these cases, which will turn on the facts unique to each plaintiff. We do not believe today’s verdict is predictive of outcomes in future cases,” said Murray Garnick, an Altria senior vice president and associate general counsel, speaking on behalf of Philip Morris.

“This case was selected by plaintiffs’ lawyers from among thousands of others to be the first tried presumably because they believed it was their best case,” said Garnick.

Edwin Sweda, a senior attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, agreed the Hess case was no guarantee of the result of future trials.

But added it also did not bode at all well for Philip Morris or its parent.

“It certainly is a very bad sign for Altria that this first of the potentially up to thousands of cases has gone against them so dramatically and so emphatically,” Sweda said.

“It is a very positive sign for the smokers and their families going into the future trials throughout Florida later this year.” (Editing by Andre Grenon )

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