FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Philip Morris should be ordered to pay more than $130 million to the widow of a longtime smoker who died of lung cancer in a case that could blaze a legal trail for about 8,000 similar Florida lawsuits, the family's attorney told a jury Tuesday.
The six jurors next will deliberate on damages in the lawsuit filed by Elaine Hess, whose husband Stuart Hess died in 1997 at age 55 after decades as a chain smoker. The jury previously found that Hess was hopelessly addicted to the nicotine in cigarettes.
Hess attorney Gary Paige said evidence overwhelmingly showed that Philip Morris and other companies for decades used deceptive advertisement, attacked health studies about smoking risks and raised doubts about links to cancer to continue selling their products they long knew were deadly.
"There's no question that they showed a reckless disregard for human life. They did not care," Paige said. "It was all in the name of profits, greed and lack of consideration for another human being."
Philip Morris attorney Kenneth Reilly urged jurors to focus on Hess's own choices when it came to cigarettes, which he said carried known health concerns for many decades.
"Mr. Hess had it within his control to quit smoking, and quit smoking in time to avoid getting lung cancer," Reilly said. "It really wasn't impossible."
The jury was asked to award Elaine Hess and her son, David, more than $30 million to compensate for Stuart Hess's premature death and almost $100 million to punish Richmond, Va.-based Philip Morris USA, a unit of Altria Group. Key to the total award is how much responsibility jurors decide Hess must bear for continuing to smoke and how much Philip Morris is to blame.
The Hess case was the first to go to trial since the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 voided a $145 billion class-action jury award in the highest punitive damage award in U.S. history. The court said each smoker's case had to be decided on its own merits, but let stand that jury's findings that tobacco companies knowingly sold dangerous products and hid risks from the public.
The Hess trial, which began Feb. 3, included video of the widely discredited 1994 testimony before Congress in which the chiefs of the major cigarette makers, including Philip Morris, denied that smoking was addictive.
The Hess case has been closely watched by the tobacco industry and by the thousands of other Florida smokers and survivors who have sued. Although it does not have direct legal impact on those other lawsuits, the Hess case could signal how many of them will turn out.
The original Florida lawsuit was filed in 1994 by a Miami Beach pediatrician, Dr. Howard Engle, who had smoked for decades and couldn't quit. The class of smokers was estimated at up to 700,000 when the giant $145 billion award was issued in 2000.