(Corrects misspelling in 9th paragraph)
MIAMI Feb 18 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
"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
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
(Editing by Andre Grenon )