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THE PHILIP MORRIS DECISION

He's Raised the Tobacco Bar

Michael Piuze's Massive Verdicts Against Industry Set Him Apart

October 07, 2002|JEFF LEEDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Michael Piuze was in his 20s, he found himself in a south Florida jail on a traffic violation. Piuze asked if he could place the phone call he figured he had a right to make.

"Boy, Jefferson Davis didn't write that in the Constitution," Piuze recalled a guard telling him.

Piuze said he was "roughed up" by guards during that five-day jail stint.

The incident inspired him to go to law school. And now Piuze is the one who's dishing out the punishment.

The 58-year-old lawyer scored a $28-billion verdict against Philip Morris Cos. last week, the largest-ever punitive damage award to an individual plaintiff. That comes on top of a $3-billion verdict Piuze won against the tobacco company last year on behalf of another smoker.

A late arrival to the nation's tobacco wars, the veteran personal injury and product liability lawyer has quickly emerged as a star of the anti-tobacco bar. The attorney, who works with a few paralegals out of a Brentwood office suite, has two more tobacco cases on deck, including one scheduled for trial Jan. 2.

Piuze (pronounced "pews") has won praise for his performance in the courtroom, where, observers say, he has a knack for connecting to jurors with his "regular Joe" perspective and homespun anecdotes. Even his opponents have referred to him as a gifted storyteller with "a seductive quality."

In his private life, though, Piuze claims few close friends. He exudes intensity, colleagues say, racing a custom-built Porsche on a professional track at speeds exceeding 150 mph and sticking to a tough exercise regimen. Fees from blockbuster verdicts in other cases have made him a wealthy man, with a home in Malibu and a fleet of exotic sports cars that he insists on washing himself, according to people who know him. He is married but separated from his wife.

"He loves fast cars, he loves beautiful women and he's very intense at what he does," said Garo Mardirossian, a lawyer who has worked with Piuze on tobacco cases. "Money is usually the last thing on his mind. He's already made money that he never thought he could, so he does things because he believes in the cause."

It is unclear how much in fees, if anything, Piuze will eventually collect from his two mega-verdicts against Philip Morris. Plaintiffs' lawyers working on contingency generally get 30% of whatever is ultimately paid out, and tobacco verdicts usually are reduced and delayed for years on appeal.

Lawyers who have opposed Piuze say he is dogged in his pursuit of what he considers fair compensation for his clients and is unwilling to accept less. Vincent Galvin, who opposed Piuze in an auto accident case, said: "You don't have settlement negotiations with Mike, and that's very unique among plaintiffs' lawyers. I think he's very capable." Litigating against him "is a challenge and it forces you to be on your game."

William S. Ohlemeyer, vice president and associate general counsel for Philip Morris, was critical of Piuze's pursuit of a multibillion-dollar award against his company: "Guys like Michael Piuze aren't going to bully us."

Piuze asked the jury for up to $20 billion, which Philip Morris considered far out of proportion to the $850,000 that the jury awarded for compensatory damages. That, said Ohlemeyer, "is something that an exceptional lawyer, a good lawyer, a fair-minded lawyer, wouldn't do. You know, I know, he knows the law doesn't allow that."

After working as a lawyer defending insurance companies for three years, Piuze opened his own small firm in 1976. Handling insurance, medical malpractice and auto accident cases, he has won some of the biggest verdicts in Southern California.

Last year, he obtained a $15-million verdict against General Motors Corp., the latest outcome in a 10-year-old case that had bounced between trial and appeal. Piuze's client had fallen asleep at the wheel of his Chevrolet Blazer, which then veered off the road and flipped over. The roof collapsed and paralyzed the then-18-year-old driver. Piuze argued that the vehicle's roof had been poorly designed. The case is on appeal.

In the early 1990s, he represented a pair of diamond wholesalers who said $8 million worth of precious stones had been stolen from their store. A federal grand jury later indicted his clients for allegedly faking the theft and engaging in bank fraud. The pair pleaded no contest to three related felony bank fraud counts. Representing the pair, Piuze accused their insurance company of bad faith for trying to rescind its policy and obtained a settlement of about $3 million.

Piuze has been a maverick within the plaintiff's bar, sometimes clashing with his fellow lawyers. In the late 1980s, manufacturers and other interests successfully lobbied for a California law that would limit product-liability claims. In a compromise with business interests, trial lawyers agreed to forgo lawsuits against tobacco companies, which were not their bread and butter.

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