California appeals court upholds 13.8 million judgment against tobacco company

[JURIST] The Second District Court of Appeals in Los Angeles [official website] on Wednesday upheld [judgment, PDF] a $13.8 million judgment against Philip Morris [corporate website] in the death of 45-year-old lifelong smoker Betty Bullock. Family of the deceased won the case after accusing the company of fraud by using deceptive marketing tactics. Philip Morris argued that the punitive judgment should simply match the judgment for pain and suffering, $850,000, as Bullock's health was mitigated by her conduct. The three-judge panel voted 2-1 to uphold the judgment and all three judges rejected Philip Morris' reasoning.

Philip Morris knew that the consensus among scientific and medical professionals was that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer and other serious diseases, that its cigarettes contained many carcinogens, and that smokers suffered lung cancer and other serious diseases at rates far greater than nonsmokers. Despite that knowledge, Philip Morris and other cigarette manufacturers for many years conducted a public campaign designed to obscure and deny the truth. Philip Morris falsely asserted that there was no consensus in the scientific and medical community concerning the adverse health effects of smoking and that the relationship between smoking and health was unknown. Philip Morris assured its customers that if it learned that any cigarette ingredient caused cancer it would remove that ingredient, and falsely stated that it did not believe that smoking was hazardous. Philip Morris repeatedly asserted that more research was needed and that it was diligently pursuing that research, but avoided sponsoring any research that would reveal the hazards of smoking and went to great lengths to avoid disclosing its own toxicological data. Rather than remove nicotine from its cigarettes as it had the ability to do, Philip Morris added urea to its cigarettes to enhance the effect of nicotine so as to further exploit its customers' addiction and gain new customers. Its customers included individuals such as Bullock who first began to smoke as youths before July 1, 1969, attracted in part by an aggressive advertising campaign in television, print and other media that was particularly appealing to youths.
The dissent argued that the US Supreme Court [official website] case State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Campbell [text] limited the punitive damages ruling to nine times compensation of the other damages. The dissenting judge would have upheld a $7.65 million punitive judgment. Philip Morris plans to appeal to the Supreme Court of California [official website].

In May, the Supreme Court of California ruled [JURIST report] unanimously to allow claims against tobacco companies for smoking-related ailments that arise after the statute of limitations for an earlier condition has elapsed. Though state law requires that parties file suit within two years of discovering an injury, the decision will allow smokers to proceed with claims based on medical conditions originating after a previous diagnosis so long as the injuries are "separate and distinct." In December, Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds [corporate website], along with an industry trade group, filed an appeal [JURIST report] with the US Supreme Court to overturn a $271.5 million class action settlement for having "distort[ed] the entire body of public knowledge about the addictive effects of nicotine." The settlement was awarded [opinion, text] by the Louisiana Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit [official website] in order to establish a fund meant to help Louisianans quit smoking.

 

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