Cigarette Lawsuit Punitive Damage Award Upheld in Oregon Lawsuit

February 8, 2008 — While the profits of Big Tobacco are hardly ‘up in smoke,’ individuals harmed by the dangerous side effects of cigarettes and other tobacco products are finding restitution through the legal system. State Supreme Courts in California, Oregon, and Florida have ruled in favor of smokers held hostage by the addictive effects of nicotine and misinformation campaigns of the tobacco industry.

Decision Holds Cigarette Company Philip Morris Responsible for Actions

Nine years in the making, Philip Morris and the entire cigarette industry suffered a major setback as the Oregon Supreme Court reinstated the full punitive damages award from the 1999 Williams lung cancer trial. In the original suit, the Williams Estate was awarded $79.5 million in punitive damages from Philip Morris, a number they contested as being inflated and unfair. The verdict was petitioned by Philip Morris shortly after the standards for punitive damages were modified by the US Supreme Court in State Farm Insurance v. Campbell, 2003.

The Oregon Court of Appeals upheld the original Williams verdict in 2004 and the Oregon Supreme Court did the same in 2006. The US Supreme Court, petitioned shortly after the 2006 Oregon Supreme Court decision, sent the case back to the Oregon Supreme Court in February 2007 to reconsider its decision on the punitive damages. On January 31, 2008, the Oregon Supreme Court rejected Philip Morris’ appeal–upholding the original verdict for the Williams Estate.

Oregon Tobacco Decision Follows California Precedent

In 2006, the US Supreme Court upheld a $50 million punitive damage ruling for the widow of California smoker Richard Boeken by denying review of the tobacco company’s appeal. Before the Williams case, this was the largest award upheld by the high court for an individual smoker. Boeken, who died in 2002 at the age of 57, successfully won damages under a 1998 California law that allowed litigation against tobacco companies for making misleading or fraudulent claims in marketing dangerous tobacco-related products.

Previously, Glendale, California, resident Patricia Henley was the first verdict under the changed California law, resulting in a $10.5 million award in 2005. A smoker for 35 years, Ms. Henley at one point changed from smoking “Marlboro Red” to “Marlboro Lights” after calling Philip Morris and being assured that it was “low tar.” Suffering from inoperable lung cancer, Ms. Henley’s case contested that Philip Morris and other tobacco companies acted to suppress proof of the link between smoking and cancer. Philip Morris’ appeals to the California Supreme Court and US Supreme Court were both rejected.

Tobacco Industry to be Held Responsible for Years to Come

Like the rest of the tobacco industry, this is not the first cigarette lawsuit against Philip Morris. They have previously been held responsible for negligence and common law fraud for knowingly withholding information about the hazardous effects of cigarettes and other tobacco products sold to the general public. Cigarette litigation reached landmark proportions in Engles, a class-action suit brought by citizens of Florida. For the residents of Florida who were sick or had died as a result of smoking, the court held the tobacco industry responsible. The court found:

  • Cigarette companies were negligent
  • Their tobacco products are defective and unreasonably dangerous
  • Cigarettes are addictive
  • Cigarette companies conspired to conceal health and addiction information with the intention of consumer reliance on the misinformation
  • Cigarette companies were liable for breach of express warranty
  • Smoking causes many preventable life-threatening diseases

Although an appeal by the tobacco industry removed the massive $145 billion punitive damage settlement, the Florida Supreme Court held that the liability against cigarette manufacturers was correct and applied to everyone in the suit. This allowed individuals of the state of Florida to file suit directly against the tobacco industry.