FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A jury was asked Friday to decide if tobacco giant Philip Morris caused the lung cancer death of a four-decade smoker through deceptive and misleading practices or whether the smoker himself bore most of the responsibility by failing to quit.
The six-person jury has already found that Stuart Hess was hopelessly addicted to nicotine before his 1997 death at age 55, in the first of some 8,000 similar Florida lawsuits to go to trial. And the Florida Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that Philip Morris and other tobacco companies knowingly sold dangerous products and conspired to conceal that information from the public.
Adam Trop, attorney for widow Elaine Hess, said evidence is overwhelming that Philip Morris knew for years that it sold a deadly product and worked hard to hide that knowledge through outright lies and bare-knuckled attacks on scientific studies regarding the serious health risks. And Hess didn't know the truth, Trop said.
"They didn't tell him this product they were selling could kill him in any number of ways," Trop said. "We ask you in this case to hold Philip Morris accountable for these actions."
Philip Morris attorney Kenneth Reilly replied that there was ample evidence of smoking's risks even when Hess started in the 1950s and that the Richmond, Virginia-based company did not set out to do harm to Hess.
"What I'm talking about is the decisions people make about whether they will or won't smoke," Reilly said.
In addition to deciding blame, the jury in this second phase of the trial must determine compensatory damages for Elaine Hess and her son and whether Philip Morris should pay punitive damages, which could run into the millions of dollars. If the answer is yes to punitive damages, that part of the case will occur next week.
Testimony in the second phase was to begin later Friday.
The lawsuit is among thousands of similar cases filed against tobacco companies since the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 threw out as excessive a $145 billion jury award in a class-action lawsuit. But the high court did let that jury's findings stand against tobacco companies, making them binding on the Hess case and all the others.