Published January 14, 2015
A jury has recommended that cigarette maker Philip Morris USA should pay $13.8 million in punitive damages to the daughter of a longtime smoker who died of lung cancer.
The panel voted 9-3 on Monday in favor of Bullock's daughter Jodie Bullock, who is now the plaintiff in the case. Betty Bullock died of lung cancer in February 2003.
She had sued Philip Morris in April 2001, accusing the company of fraud and product liability. A jury in 2002 recommended Philip Morris pay a record $28 billion in punitive damages to Bullock, but a judge later reduced the award to $28 million.
In 2008, the 2nd District Court of Appeal reversed the jury's decision and remanded the case for a new trial over the punitive damages. Philip Morris said the $28 million remained excessive.
However, the original jury recommended the tobacco company pay Bullock $750,000 in damages and $100,000 for pain and suffering, a verdict that still stands.
In a statement, Richmond, Va.-based Altria Group Inc., which owns Philip Morris, said any amount given to Bullock's daughter is unwarranted.
"After hearing weeks of improper arguments and evidence that violated state and federal law on punitive damages, the jury still managed to reject plaintiff's patently unreasonable request," said Murray Garnick, Altria Client Services senior vice president, speaking on behalf of Philip Morris. "Even so, we believe that any punitive damages award is unwarranted based on the facts in this case and that this award is unconstitutionally excessive."
Defense attorney Frank P. Kelly said outside of court that Philip Morris hasn't decided yet whether to appeal the decision.
Plaintiff's attorney Michael Piuze said the jury's verdict amounted to a "slap on the wrist for Philip Morris."
"I liked it better when it was $28 billion," said Piuze, who represented Betty Bullock after she filed the lawsuit. "She wanted me to beat the crap out of Philip Morris, and we did it once."
Betty Bullock, 64, of Newport Beach, started smoking Marlboros when she was 17 and later turned to Benson & Hedges, both Philip Morris products.
Attorneys for Philip Morris argued Betty Bullock could have stopped smoking at anytime, and the harmful effects of cigarettes were known to smokers.
Jurors said the figure they reached was a compromise, with some arguing that Philip Morris shouldn't pay anything, while others believed the cigarette maker should pay billions of dollars in damages.
Matt Reed, 37, of Burbank was one of the three dissenting jurors, who believed Philip Morris should pay a higher amount than the verdict.
"Some of us looked at it as an opportunity to deter this behavior," Reed said. "I don't find $13.8 million to be much of a deterrent."
Other jurors felt Betty Bullock should have been more responsible, but using a formula decided on an amount for the years she suffered from lung cancer.
"I saw it as a personal choice," said Poulet Minasian, 25, of Los Angeles. "There was a big gap in the amount (during deliberations), but the $13.8 million made sense."