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State High Court Backs Damages in Smoker's Case

Decision against Philip Morris marks the first time the panel has upheld such an award.

September 17, 2004|Myron Levin | Times Staff Writer

The California Supreme Court for the first time has upheld a damages award in a smoking and health case, dismissing an appeal by Philip Morris USA of a $10.5-million judgment won by a lung cancer victim who was a longtime smoker of its Marlboro brand.

The decision by the state's highest court brings Patricia Henley Reyes of Glendale a step closer to actually collecting on the verdict she won 5 1/2 years ago from the top U.S. cigarette maker.

"I'm delighted. There's justice in this world," Reyes said. She also expressed frustration that the battle seemed never-ending. "How many times do you have to win a case before you win a case?" she asked.

Reyes, 57, said she had created a foundation and planned to use most of her award to support anti-smoking campaigns and help children with respiratory ailments.

David Sylvia, a spokesman for Philip Morris parent Altria Group Inc., said Thursday that the company was disappointed and considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In February 1999, Reyes became the first of four California lung cancer victims to win sizable verdicts against cigarette makers. A new trial has been ordered in one of the cases, and the two others are in various stages of appeal.

Jurors in San Francisco Superior Court awarded Reyes $51.5 million, consisting of $1.5 million in compensatory and $50 million in punitive damages -- more than three times the amount her lawyer had requested. A short time later, the judge in the case halved the punitive portion to $25 million.

Then last year, with the case still on appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a pivotal ruling in an unrelated case, Campbell vs. State Farm, that placed limits on punitive damages. According to the ruling, punitive damages typically should be no more than nine times the amount of a compensatory award.

Numerous verdicts throughout the country came under review, including Reyes' defeat of Philip Morris, in which the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages was about 17 to 1.

Last September, a state appeals court trimmed punitive damages in the Reyes case from $25 million to $9 million -- prompting Philip Morris to seek a review by the state Supreme Court.

Ed Sweda, senior attorney with the Tobacco Products Liability Project, a Boston-based anti-smoking group, cheered the decision by the state Supreme Court to leave the award intact. He described the punitive damages as "quite reasonable and proportionate to the level of wrongdoing by Philip Morris that was proven in this case."

Reyes' lawyer Madelyn Chaber said she was hopeful of reaching closure in the case soon. "It's a 6-1 ratio" of punitive to compensatory damages, she said. "I don't think they [Philip Morris] have any other issues that the [U.S.] Supreme Court is going to care about."

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