Concluding a jury was moved by emotion rather than hard evidence, a judge on Wednesday reduced $300 million in damages awarded to a Florida smoker against Philip Morris USA to nearly $39 million.
Broward Circuit Judge Jeffrey Streitfeld ruled jurors in November granted 61-year-old Cindy Naugle a "grossly excessive" amount of punitive and non-economic damages. Naugle, a longtime Benson & Hedges smoker, has advanced emphysema, cannot breath without an oxygen bottle and needs a lung transplant, according to trial testimony.
The $300 million had been the highest damage award so far among thousands of lawsuits filed by Florida smokers against tobacco companies. Streitfeld said he is convinced jurors were unduly swayed by Naugle's poor health and what he called Philip Morris' trial strategy of attacking the smoker while refusing to admit past wrongdoing.
"I must conclude the jury was moved by passions — sympathy for Cindy's suffering and anger towards (Philip Morris') conduct and strategy," Streitfeld said in his order lowering the total to $38.9 million.
Under Florida law, Naugle — the sister of former Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle — can accept the reduced award or opt for a new trial on the damages award issue. But her attorney, Robert Kelley, said he will try to get a state appeals court to reverse Streitfeld's decision.
"I don't understand why he would set aside the hard work and effort this jury put in," Kelley said. "Why should we accept it?"
Richmond, Va.-based Philip Morris also intends to appeal the lower damage award, said Murray Garnick, associate general counsel and senior vice president at Philip Morris parent Altria Group Inc.
"We will seek further review of today's ruling and any monetary award because we believe that no damages are warranted in this case," Garnick said in a statement.
Trials are taking place across Florida in the roughly 8,000 pending lawsuits filed by smokers or their survivors blaming tobacco companies for serious health problems and deaths. So far, smokers have won eight cases and tobacco companies two.
The lawsuits were filed after the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 threw out a $145 billion class-action jury award for all Florida smokers, by far the highest punitive damage award in U.S. history. The court said each smoker's case had to be decided individually, but smoker's don't have to individually prove key findings of the original jury: that tobacco companies knowingly sold dangerous products and hid smoking risks from the public.
Garnick said tobacco firms continue to challenge that ruling as "fundamentally unfair and unconstitutional," arguing each case should stand or fall on its own merits. A federal appeals court is considering whether Florida smoker cases pending in federal courts should allow the original jury's findings about tobacco companies or make each trial start from scratch.
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