Tobacco companies scored an important legal victory in a Muncie, Ind., court Thursday when jurors found them not liable for the lung cancer death of a nurse exposed to the smoke of patients in a local veterans hospital.
It was the first secondhand-smoke case in history to be tried to a verdict. The victory was particularly sweet for cigarette makers, who are struggling to convince Congress that a proposed tobacco settlement is fair because their legal defenses remain strong.
Jurors deliberated 19 hours Wednesday and Thursday before deciding the tobacco firms were not responsible for the death of Mildred Wiley, 56, former head nurse at the Veterans Administration Hospital in nearby Marion.
The six-week trial had been closely watched by Wall Street analysts.
A handful of secondhand-smoke cases are pending throughout the country, and the outcome of the Indiana case is apt to discourage, at least for now, any big increase in filings. Some experts said the outcome shows the time is not ripe for such cases, because scientific proof that passive smoking causes cancer remains sketchy.
"There's nothing pleasant about a case that involves a woman's death, but we're very pleased the jury decided the case on the narrow issue presented to them," said William S. Ohlemeyer, lead attorney for the industry.
Wiley's team was led by trial lawyer Ronald Motley, a flamboyant South Carolinian who represents many of the state attorneys general in their pending suits against the industry. Motley, whose mother died of emphysema, got broad latitude to present evidence of industry misconduct on a range of issues not directly linked to secondhand smoke--such as alleged concealment of the addictiveness and harmfulness of direct smoking. Motley could not be reached for comment Thursday night.
The industry faced a sympathetic, even exemplary plaintiff in Mildred Wiley, a missionary's daughter and lifelong nonsmoker.
Wiley worked at a missionary hospital in South America, then spent the last 18 years of her career at the VA hospital, where she became head nurse. It was there, according to family and friends, that she was exposed to plumes of smoke from patients' cigarettes.
In 1991 her doctor found a large tumor in Wiley and she died a month later.
Tobacco lawyers contended that Wiley's cancer did not originate in the lung, that her exposure to secondhand smoke was not unusually large and that her illness therefore must have had another cause.
Plaintiffs had sought punitive damages against Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds and four other cigarette makers for allegedly conspiring to hide the risks of secondhand smoke. But before considering conspiracy claims, jurors first had to conclude that secondhand smoke did cause Wiley's cancer and that the cigarette makers were to blame.
A large victory for plaintiffs, particularly one involving punitive damages, could have dealt a serious blow to the industry's hopes of getting Congress to grant it legal protections, including immunity from punitive damages.
No one has ever won punitive damages in a smoking and health case.
The industry "dodged a major bullet with this particular jury's verdict," said Ed Sweda, senior attorney with the Tobacco Products Liability Project, a Boston-based group that encourages suits against the industry.
In an unrelated case, the Minnesota Supreme Court on Thursday temporarily blocked the release of thousands of pages of tobacco industry documents sought by the state in its $1.77-billion damage suit against cigarette makers.
The court acted an hour before a deadline for release of 39,000 files that Minnesota Atty. Gen. Hubert "Skip" Humphrey has said contain damaging information about the tobacco industry's "40-year cover-up" on the health hazards of smoking.