YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Far From Rich After Court Victory

Tobacco: Ex-smoker Patricia Henley has yet to see a dime of the millions in damages she won four years ago.


Betty Bullock won worldwide attention last week for winning a record $28-billion jury verdict against Philip Morris Cos., which sold the cigarettes that gave her lung cancer.

But Patricia Henley knows the grim reality of what usually happens after beating Big Tobacco in court. Henley was the first sick smoker to get her case to trial in California. And she did convince a jury in 1999 that Philip Morris should pay her $50 million in punitive damages.

Nearly four years after Henley's victory, she has received none of the award and lives on disability payments, worrying about how she will pay the rent.

"Everybody thinks I won," said the 55-year-old Glendale resident. "I haven't seen a dime."

Chances are Bullock won't see a dime either. Though the Newport Beach woman's award is by far the largest in four years of plaintiff victories--reversing a four-decade winning streak for the tobacco industry--Henley's experience shows the kind of protracted appellate battle Bullock faces.

Of 11 sick smokers who won damage awards before Bullock, only one, a Florida man, has been paid. The cases of all the rest are on appeal. Many of the smokers are expected to die before appeals are exhausted. That's what happened to Richard Boeken after he won a $3-billion punitive damage award in Los Angeles last year, the largest before Bullock's.

"The tobacco companies' basic position is it ain't over until it's over," said Northeastern University law professor Richard Daynard, director of the Tobacco Products Liability Project, which encourages smokers to sue.

"Their desperate fear is that plaintiffs attorneys around the country are going to try to start taking these cases in large numbers," he said. "The quicker people receive their money, the more likely it is that large numbers of attorneys will actually take these cases."

In Henley's case, jurors in San Francisco listened to six weeks of testimony and reviewed documents that detailed the company's promotion of cigarettes in spite of their hazards. During trial, Henley was asked whether she accepted any personal responsibility for smoking.

"I said, 'You bet I do. I'm the one who is going to die.' "

Jurors deliberated for less than two days before returning a punitive damage award that was more than three times the $15 million Henley had sought. She and her lawyer weren't sure that they had heard it right.

"It was really a shock to the whole tobacco industry that they could be held responsible and at such a large number," said Madelyn J. Chaber, Henley's lawyer. "This is an industry that considered itself invincible, and they were taken down several notches."

For Henley, the suit was never about getting rich. It was about making Philip Morris pay.

"I was not supposed to live," she said. "How can you take it with you?"

The trial judge reduced the punitive damages by half. An appeal is pending.

Henley plans to use any punitive damages that are collected by her or her estate to endow a foundation to teach children the hazards of smoking and to help those suffering from respiratory diseases.

"I made it very clear in deposition I will not take a nickel of your blood money," she said. "When I take a bite out of Philip Morris' profits it will be the children who do not buy their products because I talked to them and because they know what I say is the truth."

Henley also won $1.5 million in compensatory damages. If she ever collects, she plans to invest that money and use the interest to help with her monthly expenses.

Life has been a struggle since she was found to have inoperable lung cancer almost five years ago. Henley was forced to give up the drain-cleaning business she ran.

Things had been tight, but last week they got much worse. On Friday--the very day the jury handed Bullock her $28-billion judgment--Henley received a letter from the Social Security Administration informing her that her $666 monthly disability payment had been cut to $304.50 because she had gotten married. Her husband's disability payments were similarly slashed, leaving the couple with a combined monthly income of $1,352. Their rent is $1,000.

"We can pay most of our bills," Henley said. "But we won't be able to eat."

Her suddenly dire financial situation has made urgent an idea Henley has to put together a singing act. She figures she can earn $50 an hour performing in retirement homes. The problem is that she hasn't been able to sing for longer than 20 minutes since she got sick, and the retirement homes want one-hour acts.

"This product took away my life," she said.

Henley smoked her first cigarette at age 15 outside a school dance. "The guy I liked smoked Marlboro," she recalled. "I wanted to show off for him, so I had to smoke Marlboro."

Henley went on to smoke up to 3 1/2 packs a day. Thirty-five years after that first cigarette, she quit.

Los Angeles Times Articles