Widow’s Trial Victory in Florida a Setback for Tobacco Industry

February 17, 2009

A Florida jury ruled last Thursday that a smoker’s death was caused by his addiction to cigarettes, a legal setback for cigarette giant Philip Morris in the first of potentially thousands of cases to go to trial.

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.

The Hess trial was the first of 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.

“The message here is that justice is slow sometimes, but it comes,” said Alex Alvarez, an attorney for Elaine Hess.

The ruling came in the first phase of what could be a three-phase trial. Lawyers for Hess were initially required to show that Hess’ death was caused by addiction to cigarettes.

“We showed that. The next phase is to decide (compensatory) damages and our entitlement to punitive damages,” Alvarez said, adding that the jury can assign a percentage of liability to the tobacco company and to the smoker.

Lawyers for Elaine Hess argued that Stuart Hess tried but failed to quit smoking because he was addicted to nicotine. Philip Morris lawyers argued that he could have quit.

“The Hess trial is not over,” Philip Morris USA, a unit of Altria Group, said in a statement. “The jury has decided only the threshold question of whether the plaintiff can proceed in this case as a former member of the Engle class.”

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 firms 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 firms because they would not have to prove those issues again.

“This was the very first case. There are many more just like this and I think the cigarette companies are on notice that the jig is up,” Alvarez said.

The second phase of the trial was scheduled to begin on Friday.

(Reporting by Jim Loney, Editing by Pascal Fletcher, Richard Chang)

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