California jury gives smoker $28 billion

By Gary Gentile
Saturday October 05, 2002


LOS ANGELES — A Superior Court jury Friday awarded a record $28 billion in punitive damages to a former smoker who sued Philip Morris Inc. for fraud and negligence. 

The 12-member jury made the award to Betty Bullock, 64, of Newport Beach, who started smoking when she was 17 and was diagnosed last year with lung cancer that has since spread to her liver. 

Last month, the same jury awarded Bullock $750,000 in economic damages and $100,000 for pain and suffering. 

Before Friday’s verdict, the largest jury award to an individual against a tobacco company was $3 billion, won in June 2001 against Philip Morris U.S.A. by Richard Boeken, a former heroin addict with cancer who died in January of 2002. 

That $3 billion was later reduced by a Superior Court judge to $100 million. 

Both awards were won by Michael Piuze, a maverick Los Angeles attorney who had never before tried a tobacco case before Boeken’s. 

During Bullock’s trial, Philip Morris did not try to defend its past actions. Instead, the company turned the spotlight on Bullock and her decision to smoke. The strategy was a major shift from previous defense efforts. 

“If she had stopped smoking ... even in the 1980s, she would not have lung cancer today,” Peter Bleakley, the attorney representing Philip Morris, told jurors at the start of the trial in August. 

Piuze argued that Philip Morris concealed the dangers of cigarettes with a widespread disinformation campaign that began in the 1950s. 

“We will show what I believe is the largest fraud scheme ever perpetrated by corporations anywhere,” Piuze said in his opening presentation. 

Piuze used photographs of Bullock, cigarette ads from her teenage years and internal tobacco industry documents to lay out his contention that Philip Morris concealed the dangers of cigarettes with a widespread disinformation campaign that began in the 1950s. 

The defense denied such a campaign ever existed. 

“At this point, it’s really open season on the industry,” Daynard said. “Juries all around the country are sending a message that this conduct was not only totally inexcusable but that it was so outrageous there is no amount of money that would be enough to punish the people who perpetrated it,” said Richard Daynard, a law professor at Northeastern University in Boston and chairman of the Tobacco Products Liability Project. 

The Bullock case has drawn added interest because it follows a state Supreme Court ruling that grants cigarette makers a new window of immunity. The Aug. 5 decision said most statements and acts by the tobacco companies between 1988 and 1998 cannot be used as evidence against them because of a state law, which was later repealed.