A jury decided Thursday that a longtime chain-smoker's death from lung cancer was caused by nicotine addiction, a potentially costly loss for tobacco giant Philip Morris and an important test case for thousands of similar Florida lawsuits.
The lawsuit by Elaine Hess, widow of Stuart Hess, is the first of about 8,000 such cases to go to trial since the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 threw out a $145 billion jury award in a class-action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of smokers and their families.
The state's high court upheld the conclusion that tobacco companies knowingly sold dangerous products and concealed smoking's health risks, but ruled each case must be proven individually. Now that the jury has found that Hess was addicted, the case will proceed to the liability and damages phases.
Hess's attorneys have not revealed how much they will seek, but it would likely be in the millions of dollars. Elaine Hess broke down in tears when the verdict was announced after almost three hours of deliberations.
"We're very pleased with the jury's verdict," said Hess attorney Adam Trop. "Starting (Friday), the jury's going to hear a lot more about what the tobacco industry has been doing for the last several decades."
Philip Morris attorneys declined comment.
In closing arguments, Hess attorneys Gary Paige and Alex Alvarez said Stuart Hess smoked heavily for 40 years and tried numerous times to quit, even trying hypnosis at one point. But they said the nicotine was too powerful, forcing Hess to continue smoking even as he was undergoing chemotherapy before he died in 1997 at age 55.
"People smoke because they're addicted, not because they choose to," Paige said. "Nobody wants to be addicted to cigarettes. It's as addictive as cocaine and heroin."
Kenneth Reilly, attorney for Richmond, Virginia-based Philip Morris — a unit of Altria Group — said Hess' own medical records show that he was able to quit from time to time but made the decision each time to resume smoking despite doctor's advice to stop. Reilly said thousands of smokers successfully quit each year.
"From an objective standard, have they proved Mr. Hess was addicted? The answer is no," Reilly said.
The trial, which began Feb. 3, is being closely watched by the tobacco industry and by the thousands of other Florida smokers and survivors who have filed similar lawsuits. Although it does not have a direct legal effect on those other lawsuits, the Hess case could signal how they will turn out.
Much of Hess' evidence concerned the tobacco industry's well-documented efforts to hide and downplay the dangers of smoking, but Reilly said Hess was well aware by the mid-1960s of government warnings about health risks.
The $145 billion damage award by a Miami jury — in 2000 the largest such punitive award in U.S. history — was thrown out as excessive by the state Supreme Court. It involved a class of smokers estimated at about 700,000 as part of a 1994 lawsuit filed by Miami Beach Dr. Howard Engle, a pediatrician who had smoked for decades and couldn't quit.
At the time, the Engle case was the first class-action lawsuit against tobacco companies to make it to trial in the U.S.