Tobacco company Philip Morris USA must pay $37 million to a Massachusetts woman who developed cancer from smoking Marlboro Lights cigarettes, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled in a unanimous decision.
The state’s high court found that Patricia Walsh Greene was a victim of a civil conspiracy by the tobacco company that the Lights cigarettes were safer than regular Marlboro cigarettes.
Greene alleged fraudulent misrepresentation — that Philip Morris and its co-conspirators misrepresented the health consequences of cigarettes and their addictiveness. Greene contended that she might have stopped smoking had the tobacco firm not convinced her that the Lights were less harmful.
In 2019, a Middlesex County jury found Philip Morris liable for conspiracy that caused Greene’s cancer and awarded her $9.7 million. The trial judge found a causal link between the deception and Greene’s continued smoking and that the company’s actions violated the state’s Chapter 93A consumer protection law. In accordance with that law, she tripled the original award and then added $2.3 million for medical and legal costs. The amount was backdated to 2015 and subjected to statutory 12% interest, bringing the total to about $37 million.
(The jury also found for Greene’s husband on his loss of consortium claim. Additionally, Philip Morris’s codefendant, grocer Star Markets Co., was found not liable.)
In its appeal, Philip Morris argued that there was insufficient evidence at trial to support the jury’s findings of liability on the civil conspiracy claims. The firm questioned whether Greene actually relied upon its misrepresentations. It also maintained that it was entitled to a new trial because the jury’s instructions on conspiracy were erroneous.
In answering the tobacco company’s appeal, the high court concluded that the jury verdict against it for civil conspiracy and the trial judge’s finding of liability under the state’s consumer protection law were supported by the evidence. It found that the company failed to object during the discussion of the jury instructions regarding the conspiracy claims, and thus waived that argument for the purposes of the appeal.
The court concluded that Greene met the evidence requirement with expert testimony on the marketing conspiracy and evidence of her detrimental reliance on the conspiracy’s misrepresentations regarding filtered cigarettes.
“Philip Morris represented that such products, including Marlboro Lights, delivered lower tar and nicotine and were a healthier alternative to regular cigarettes. Given Philip Morris’s research regarding compensation and mutagenicity, the jury could find that these representations were knowingly false,” Justice Scott P. Kafker stated in the opinion.
Greene testified that she believed the false messages and switched to Marlboro Lights because of this belief. The court found that, particularly against the backdrop of her exposure to the conspiracy’s broader disinformation campaign, “a reasonable jury could conclude that Greene was exposed to the fraud and deception in the particular marketing and messaging regarding filtered cigarettes and that she relied on it to justify her continuing to smoke Marlboro Lights.”
Philip Morris also argued that the 12% pre- and post-judgment statutory interest rate applied to the verdict is unconstitutional. But the court upheld the 12% interest rate, finding it passed a “rational basis review” and “ensures that plaintiffs who have won in the trial court are fully compensated for the loss of the time value of their money during often lengthy periods of appeal.” Such a fixed rate also makes the final award of damages particularly easy to calculate, the court added.
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