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Philip Morris fights $3 billion verdict

The Associated Press
Tuesday August 07, 2001

LOS ANGELES — Philip Morris attorneys urged a judge Monday to slash a $3 billion punitive damage award to a cancer-stricken smoker and to grant a retrial. 

The arguments formed a two-pronged attack by the tobacco giant on a June 6 decision by a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury that awarded Richard Boeken, 56, compensatory damages of $5.5 million and $3 billion in punitive damages. 

The verdict was the largest in an individual lawsuit against a tobacco company. 

Boeken, a smoker for 40 years, has lung cancer. The former oil and securities dealer claimed in his lawsuit against Philip Morris that he was the victim of a tobacco industry campaign that portrayed smoking as “cool,” but concealed its dangers. 

Philip Morris’ attorneys urged Judge Charles W. McCoy, who presided over the trial, to grant a motion to reduce the punitive damages to no more than $25 million. 

“The award of $3 billion in an individual case ... raises profound issues in our system of justice,” Kenneth Starr, attorney for Philip Morris, told the judge. “No published opinion (in California) sanctions an award of more than $25 million.” 

Starr also argued that because the tobacco industry expects to be facing many similar decisions in the future, a smaller award is justified since the company could not afford to pay $3 billion to every plaintiff. 

Boeken’s attorney, Michael Piuze, argued that the severity of what the tobacco company did justified the high punitive award. 

“Philip Morris traded health for wealth for 50 years, lied about it, and got caught,” he said. 

Philip Morris’ lawyers also argued for a new trial, primarily because McCoy refused to allow the company to present evidence of Boeken’s past criminal convictions, information the jury might have used to decide his credibility. 


Attorney Maurice Leiter argued that there was no evidence of a direct or indirect link between past statements from Philip Morris and Boeken’s belief that smoking was safe. Because of this, Leiter said, jurors had to take Boeken’s word that he got that idea from Philip Morris. 

“The plaintiff’s credibility was a key part of our defense,” Leiter said. 

Boeken had two felony convictions during the 1970s — one involving stolen property and one for possession of a small amount of heroin. In 1993, he pleaded guilty to a federal charge of aiding and abetting wire fraud. The case involved a telephone boiler room operation that sold oil and gas properties from 1986 to 1988 in Wyoming. 

Prosecutors said the business took in about $2.1 million from more than 180 investors. Boeken testified for the government in the prosecution of his former boss, pleaded guilty to the felony and was ordered to pay a fine and $50,000 in restitution. 

Piuze pointed out that the court ruled three times during the trial that Boeken’s criminal record was irrelevant to the case and could prejudice the jury. 

Piuze conceded that there was no direct evidence linking Philip Morris’ statements and Boeken’s beliefs, but said the circumstantial evidence was proof enough. 

“Is it a coincidence that Mr. Boeken ends up believing exactly what they’re putting out?” he said. 

The judge said he would reach a decision by the close of business Thursday.