$50m record damages awarded against tobacco companyBMJ 1999; 318 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.318.7182.481 (Published 20 February 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;318:481
A terminally ill former smoker was awarded $50m (£31.25m) punitive damages against Philip Morris, the United States's largest tobacco company last week. Lawyers for the company have said that they would appeal.
The award, the largest to date in a tobacco liability lawsuit filed by an individual and more than three times the amount the plaintiff's lawyers had asked for, was applauded by antismoking forces and was seen as a serious setback for the tobacco industry.
Patricia Henley, a 52 year old grandmother from San Francisco who has lung cancer, said that she would be donating the money to help educate young people about smoking. “I wouldn't touch anickel of that blood money,” she said. “I think that this is a victory for the children, for the next generation.”
The jury took just three hours to reach its landmark verdict, with a majority of 10 to 2, after the four week trial. The two dissenting jurors thought that the $15m sought by Ms Henley's lawyer was adequate.
The jury agreed with arguments from Ms Henley's lawyers that the tobacco company had deliberately targeted underage smokers and covered up mounting scientific evidence that smoking causes cancer.
“This jury verdict is particularly noteworthy,” said Ronald Davis, director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, the first expert witness to testify in the case. “The decision may well open the floodgates, especially in California where antitobacco sentiment runs strong and where only nine out of 12 jurors are needed to decide civil lawsuits,” added Dr Davis, who used to edit Tobacco Control and is now the BMJ's North American editor.
Madelyn Chaber, the lawyer representing Ms Henley, said that the jurors had “sent a message” tothe tobacco companies and “the message was that they were angry.”
Ms Henley, who had smoked Marlboros and Marlboro Lights for 35 years, was the first Californian successfully to sue a tobacco company after state lawmakers restored individuals' rights to do so in 1997.