Jury Renders $17 Million Verdict for Spouse of Former Smoker


RELEASED – July 30, 2014

NOVATO, CA – Earlier today, a jury in Los Angeles County Superior Court returned a verdict in favor of Mrs. Tajie Major, the widow of retired Captain William Major, U.S. Navy, against the only defendant in the case, Lorillard Tobacco Co. for $17.736 M (Tajie Major vs. Lorillard Tobacco Co., Case No. BC473650). Plaintiff’s counsel, Gil Purcell of Novato, CA-based Brayton Purcell LLP was understandably pleased with today’s result for Mrs. Major. Mr. Purcell wished to express his gratitude for the assistance his client received from those who appeared in court during the trial: “We are most appreciative of the witnesses with the courage and resolve to come forward and mete out some justice against tobacco companies who profit from mass-produced addiction and misery.”

William Major, whose peak earning years as a marine architect consultant was cut short by his death from lung cancer at age of 55, started smoking as a teenager in 1962 — years before any cigarette warnings began appearing on packages of Lorillard Tobacco Co.’s products. This grew to a two-pack per day habit over the next 26 years. Although he managed to quit smoking in 1988, the damage from his addiction had already been done. While he also smoked brands made by cigarette giants Phillip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, the unanimous 12-0 jury verdict today found that Mr. Major’s habit of consuming Lorillard Tobacco Co.’s Kent cigarettes, of Micronite Filter fame, and Newport cigarettes, Lorillard Tobacco Co.’s menthol brand, caused his death.

The month-long trial brought an end to the present phase of this case which was filed in 1999 and includes a hiatus of several years in its history. During this hiatus, the ability to sue tobacco defendants like Lorillard Tobacco Co. was litigated to the California Supreme Court by Mr. Purcell and Brayton Purcell LLP. As to his client and her persistence over the time that her case has been pending, Mr. Purcell noted “Tajie Major is to be commended.” After years of litigation by delay, big tobacco companies are finally being held responsible for decades of misconduct and placing sales over safety when it came to designing of their products.

Purcell further commented that in this case “The jury was superb in their commitment to do the right thing based on the evidence and law.” In rendering judgment against Lorillard Tobacco Co., the jury had to confront the fundamental proposition that a cigarette was not just tobacco rolled in paper, but instead was a highly engineered, mass-produced, complex device, as well that all cigarettes were not created equal. The jury received evidence that demonstrated that cigarettes, including Lorillard Tobacco Co.’s Kent and Newport products, were meticulously designed to create and sustain an addiction to nicotine. Further, the evidence demonstrated that additives, such as menthol, were included in the manufacturing process to not only allow an otherwise naturally “harsh” product to be inhaled more easily, but also to enhance the nicotine impact — the “kick” — experienced by the consumer of a newly lit cigarette.

Big Tobacco companies in the 1950s were aware that they were in the business of selling nicotine, and promoted continued sales and profit. Millions of dollars were expended annually by Lorillard Tobacco Co. and the rest of the tobacco industry to assess the effects of content manipulation and adulteration not only of tobacco itself and the additives to it but also of the paper that encased the tobacco and the filters through which smoke was inhaled into the lungs. Today’s jury heard how design changes that could have made significant differences in the health impact and safety of their consumers were ignored. Cigarette companies, through their products, were literally killing consumers because manufacturers elected the expediencies of enhanced nicotine delivery and profit over design changes that could have lead to a less-lethal product.

Through much of this same evidence, the jury was able to unanimously conclude that Mr. Major’s lung cancer and death were caused both by the fact that Kent and Newport cigarettes were negligently designed, and that smoking the products created overwhelming and unreasonable risks of harm for the consuming public, like Mr. Major. By their verdict today, the jury unanimously concluded that Kent and Newport cigarettes, made by Lorillard Tobacco Co., failed to meet the California consumer safety based risk-benefit test for design defect.

Unable to assess punitive damages in this wrongful death case, the jury nevertheless found that Mrs. Major had sustained an economic loss of $2.15M for the financial support her terminally ill husband could no longer provide. Because of his premature death, they also determined she was entitled to recover an additional $430,000 in related and other lost benefits and $156,700 for lost household services. Having been married for over 20 years by the time of his death, the jury further determined that $10M was an appropriate figure to compensate Mrs. Major for the loss of her husband which she had already sustained and that an additional $5M was proper for the future loss she would endure because of Mr. Major’s wrongful death. Liability was determined by the jury and Lorillard Tobacco Co. was assessed fault at 17%, while Mr. Major comparative fault was determined to be 50%. Other cigarette companies were assessed a 33% share of fault and, despite arguments by Lorillard Tobacco Co. to the contrary, the jury found that possible prior exposure to asbestos played no role in the causation of disease and assigned that agent a 0.0% fault allocation.

To prove up Mrs. Major’s case, Mr. Purcell utilized two noted local physicians: Pulmonologist Barry Horn, M.D. from Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, and UC Berkeley Epidemiologist, Alan Smith, M.D. Also testifying in the case was Seattle, WA, pathologist, Samuel P. Hammar, M.D., and one of Mr. Major’s treating physicians, Dr. Ronald Miller. These witnesses helped to establish the basic facts of the lung cancer that caused William Major’s death. A former Phillip Morris Co. cigarette design engineer, William Farone, PhD., provided testimony for the plaintiff which established that design options utilized by cigarette manufacturers, including Lorillard Tobacco Co., exposed users of their products to hundreds of toxic substances and scores of carcinogens, thereby increasing the risks of disease and death to their customers in the process. Such evidence further demonstrated that such risks were avoidable or subject to substantial reduction by known design alternatives, which were ignored by the manufacturers like Lorillard Tobacco Co. Dr. James DiFranza also testified about the addictive properties of nicotine-based upon his years of experience in dealing with addicted smokers. James Mills, PhD, an economist, provided the expert testimony upon which the jury relied as the basis to calculate the economic loss Mrs. Major had suffered. Additionally, the testimony of numerous witnesses was presented to establish the nature and extent of Mr. Major’s use of Lorillard Tobacco Co.’s cigarette products.

Assisting the trial team of Gil Purcell and Jason Rose were Brayton Purcell LLP attorney Stephanie Drenski and John Wallace, Of Counsel to the firm.

Opposing Mr. Purcell and Mr. Rose before the Honorable Judge Amy Hogue (LASC, Dept.: 322) on behalf of Lorillard Tobacco Co., was the St. Louis firm of Thompson Coburn LLP, by Carl L. Rowley and DLA Piper LLP (US) by San Diego partner Brian Foster.

Total verdict: $17,736,700.