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25 February 2009

$8 Million Award in First Solo Tobacco Trial

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A jury ordered Philip Morris to pay $8 million in damages to the widow of a smoker who died of lung cancer in a case that could set a standard for roughly 8,000 similar lawsuits in Florida.
The six jurors deliberated over two days before returning the award for Elaine Hess, 63, whose husband, Stuart Hess, died in 1997 at age 55 after decades as a chain smoker.

The award amounts to $3 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages against Philip Morris USA, based in Richmond, Va., and a unit of the Altria Group.

“It wasn’t about the money from the beginning,” Mrs. Hess said after the verdict. “It was about doing the right thing. I just really hope this can help all the thousands of families who have also suffered.”

The Hess case was the first to go to trial since the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 voided a $145 billion jury award in another class-action case, the highest punitive damage award in American history. The court said each smoker’s case had to be decided individually, but let stand that jury’s findings that tobacco companies knowingly sold dangerous products and hid their risks.

“We plan to challenge the verdict in the trial court and, if necessary, on appeal,” said Murray Garnick, an Altria Client Services vice president and associate general counsel. “We do not believe today’s verdict is predictive of the outcome of future cases.”

The Hess case has been closely watched by the tobacco industry and by thousands of other Florida smokers and survivors who have sued.

The original class-action lawsuit was filed in 1994 by a Miami Beach pediatrician, Dr. Howard Engle, who had smoked for decades and could not quit. The class of smokers was estimated at up to 700,000 when the giant $145 billion award was issued in 2000.

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