Supreme Court Upholds Tobacco Settlement




Supreme Court Upholds Tobacco Settlement

The Supreme Court has upheld the verdict awarding the family of a life-long smoker the largest court-ordered payout in tobacco litigation history. Richard Boeken was awarded the $50 million settlement prior to his death in 2002 after he was diagnosed with advanced staged lung cancer from smoking. In the lawsuit, Boeken and his family claimed that cigarette kingpin Phillip Morris, owned by Altria Group Inc. was guilty of negligence, fraud, misrepresentation and the sale of a defective product.

Boeken, a smoker since he was 13-years-old, claimed that he switched to Marlboro Lights after relentless efforts to kick the habit, because he was led to believe they were safer. Initially, the jury awarded Boeken and his family $3 billion in punitive damages and an additional $5.5 million for compensatory damages for the unsafe product. The amount was later reduced in a California appeals court to $50 million.

Nonetheless, this pinnacle case marks a major and potentially dangerous turning point for Phillip Morris and tobacco litigation. “The tide has turned in the 50 years of tobacco litigation in this country and that increasingly jurors are not buying the defenses that have served the tobacco interests for decades,” commented Douglas Blake, of the Tobacco Law Center at William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota.

Phillip Morris aggressively attempted to overturn the decisions of the lower courts arguing that the punitive settlement awarded to Boeken’s family was “unconstitutionally excessive”. Atria Group also sought to set a standard in the case for the development of rules and limits on punitive damages for future tobacco claims.

“The reason behind the requirement is to protect the defendant from getting hit with multiple punitive damage awards in successive cases for the same conduct. It’s not a class action, it’s one individual,” commented Steven Rissman, a spokesman for the Altria Group. “The company in other words is not going to be punished for conduct of people who weren’t involved in the case.”

Supreme Court justices however, unanimously voted without explanation to Phillip Morris to uphold the original settlement for the unsafe product case in the death and illness of Richard Boeken.

Rissman issued the statement regarding the settlement, “Since then, Phillip Morris USA has won five consecutive cases in the California trial courts, so in many ways, this is kind of the old cases cycling through the appellate process.”

Legal experts however, are considering this case a potential landmark in tobacco litigation history, which may set precedent for other unsafe product tobacco settlements.

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