Smoker wins $3 billion in Philip Morris suit

The Associated Press
Thursday June 07, 2001


LOS ANGELES — A jury Wednesday awarded a cancer-stricken smoker more than $3 billion from tobacco giant Philip Morris, the largest judgment against a cigarette maker in a lawsuit brought by an individual. 

The Superior Court jury found against Philip Morris on all six claims of fraud, negligence and making a defective product. 

Richard Boeken, 56, of Topanga was awarded $3 billion in punitive damages and $5.5 million in general damages. 

“We thought that figure would hurt them, make them stand up and take notice,” juror Denise Key said of the punitive damages. “We want them to be responsible, to put on their product that the product will kill so when you smoke you smoke at your own risk.” 

It was the largest jury award won by an individual against a cigarette maker. The largest judgment against the tobacco industry in a class-action lawsuit was $145 billion awarded last year to thousands of sick Florida smokers. Philip Morris was one of five tobacco companies in that case. 

Boeken, who suffers from incurable lung cancer, smiled and gave a thumbs-up sign as the 18-page verdict was read. He declined to speak to reporters after the hearing. 

Philip Morris attorney Maurice Leiter said he will appeal. 

“We recognize Philip Morris is an unpopular company. It makes a dangerous product, but clearly, the evidence does not support this verdict,” Leiter said. 

He said the company believes Boeken ignored “a mountain of information” about the health risks of smoking and chose to continue his habit. 

Boeken’s attorney, Michael Piuze, said he did not know how the jury decided on the award. 

“I don’t know where it came from, but we’re pleased,” Piuze said. 

The award may not pass a new test adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court, some attorneys warned. 

“The punitive damage award has to bear some relationship to compensatory damage,” said attorney Michael Hausfeld, who sued tobacco companies in May, claiming they violated federal racketeering laws to hook children on cigarettes. 

“Clearly here the punitive award is an expression of total outrage and I’m not sure under the Supreme Court test for a single individual that kind of a differential would be upheld,” Hausfeld said. 

Boeken had sought more than $12 million in compensatory damages such as medical bills and lost earnings, and between $100 million and $10 billion in punitive damages. 

He was diagnosed in 1999 with lung cancer, which has spread to his lymph nodes, back and brain. He took up cigarettes in 1957 at age 13 and was smoking at least two packs of Marlboros every day for more than 40 years. Piuze said his client had kicked heroin and alcohol, but renewed his smoking habit after trying to quit several times. 

Piuze argued that his client was a victim of a decades-long tobacco industry campaign to promote smoking as “cool” but the company concealed the serious dangers of smoking. 

During closing arguments, Piuze said Philip Morris is “the world’s biggest drug dealer, something that puts the Colombian drug cartels to shame.” 

Attorneys for Philip Morris didn’t deny that smoking caused Boeken’s illness but argued that he ignored health warnings about the dangers of cigarettes and chose to smoke despite the risk. 

The jury began deliberations on May 22 but had to start over again two days later because a panelist was dismissed to take a long-planned vacation. 

Jurors during the 7-week-long trial were presented with a pile of evidence that included company memos and videotaped depositions from Boeken and clips of tobacco company executives’ 1994 congressional testimony. 

Key, the juror, said she viewed Philip Morris as simply a company trying to make money. 

“I don’t see them as corporate scum. I see them as a business,” Key said. 

Juror Ann Anderson revealed some of the thinking that went on in deliberations. 

“I think in the jury room a lot of people thought we wanted to punish Philip Morris,” she said. “It wasn’t to punish them. It was to make them stand up and take notice.” 

The verdict was the latest in a series of tobacco industry courtroom losses. Earlier this week, a Brooklyn, N.Y., jury found tobacco companies liable for deceptive business practices, ordering them to pay up to $17.8 million to treat ailing New York smokers. 

There have been six prior cases in which plaintiffs won individual awards since the mid-1990s, said Richard Daynard, a law professor and chairman of the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston. 

But only one of those plaintiffs has actually received the money, a 70-year-old ex-smoker who received $1.1 million from Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. as full payment plus interest on a 1995 jury award of $750,000. The company is appealing the verdict to the U.S. Supreme Court, but was ordered to make the payment. 

Shares of Philip Morris finished regular trading at $50, down 83 cents. In after-hours trading, shares fell $1.75 to $48.25.