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Florida Court Upholds Smoker's Award

Appeal: Brown & Williamson is to pay $750,000 to a man who has lung cancer. The jury's verdict had been overturned.

November 23, 2000|Times Staff and Wire Reports

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — British American Tobacco's Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. will have to pay a $750,000 award to an ill smoker after the Florida Supreme Court reversed an appeals court decision.

Although the verdict is small compared with the record $145 billion a Miami jury award levied against Brown & Williamson and four other U.S. tobacco companies in July, Wednesday's decision marks the first time a tobacco award has been affirmed by a state's highest court.

Louisville, Ky.-based Brown & Williamson said it may appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lung cancer patient Grady Carter, who smoked cigarettes for 44 years, sued Brown & Williamson in a Florida state court in 1995, and the next year was awarded the damages after a jury trial. A state appeals court overturned the award, saying Carter, who learned of the cancer in 1991, waited too long to sue.

The Florida Supreme Court reversed, saying the state statute of limitations allows filing of such a lawsuit within four years, which the jury found Carter had done.

Brown & Williamson was ordered to pay $1 million in a separate 1998 Florida case, but the verdict was overturned on appeal.

The anti-tobacco verdict, the first to be affirmed by the supreme court of any state, reflects a shift in the legal fortunes of cigarette makers, who for decades had routinely defeated suits by individual smokers.

Four other victories by individual smokers during the last two years are being appealed by tobacco companies.

In February 1999, a San Francisco jury ordered Philip Morris to pay $51.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages to a former Marlboro smoker with lung cancer, an award subsequently reduced by the judge to $26.5 million. The following month, a jury in Portland, Ore., returned an $80-million damage verdict against Philip Morris in another lung cancer case.

In March, a San Francisco jury ordered Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. to pay $21.7 million in compensatory and punitive damages to lung cancer victim Leslie Whiteley and her husband. Whiteley died a few weeks later.

And last month, a state court jury in Tampa, Fla., awarded $200,000 in compensatory damages to plaintiff Robert Jones.

In a statement on the Carter decision, Brown & Williamson said a trial shouldn't have been held because the plaintiff was "improperly allowed to claim that the federal warning label was inadequate." The company says the Florida decision conflicts with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the accuracy of health warnings on cigarette packs cannot be challenged.

The company also said it would "seek a rehearing" before the state high court and was "confident" the case would eventually be dismissed, perhaps by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Floyd Matthews of Jacksonville, Fla., one of the plaintiff's lawyers, said "it would be a real long shot" if the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case.

British American, the world's second-largest tobacco company, uses more than 240 brand names, including Benson & Hedges, Kent and Lucky Strike, to sell cigarettes and cigars.

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