Lawsuit verdict favors cigarette makers
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A Kanawha jury rejected all but one of the claims against major cigarette manufacturers and decided the companies should not suffer punitive damages for smoker illnesses and deaths.
The tobacco trial has been going on at the old Kanawha County Courthouse since mid-April. Attorneys for both the tobacco companies and hundreds of smokers gave their closing arguments Tuesday.
The jury reached a unanimous decision after deliberating for four and a half hours.
The cases were filed in Ohio County, but most of the plaintiffs were Kanawha residents. Senior Status Judge Arthur Recht presided over the trial and moved it here in an attempt to seat an unbiased jury. About 8,000 residents were initially called to hear the case.
The jury found that the companies involved - R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris, Lorillard, American Tobacco and Brown and Williamson - were not liable for illnesses suffered by smokers using their products.
The jury also decided those companies were not negligent, did not conceal the risks of smoking their cigarettes and made reasonable attempts to make them safer with the use of filters, different papers and tobacco treatment methods.
The plaintiffs won a favorable verdict in only one point at issue - that the filtered cigarettes manufactured between 1964 and 1969 did not come with proper instructions on how to use them.
That could lead to the progress of some of the plaintiffs' individual cases through the court system if they can show a link between those instructions and their injuries.
Jeff Furr, who represented R.J. Reynolds and Brown and Williamson, said he was happy with the verdict.
"There were two simple points that really contributed to their deliberations on all the claims - that they are a naturally dangerous product and can't be made safe, and that everyone has known they are dangerous and addictive for a very long time."
After weeks of testimony, plaintiffs failed to convince the jurors that the cigarette manufacturers hid the dangers from consumers and failed to act on known safety steps.
Attorney Kenneth McClain asked them, "How many have to die before they admit they are not safe? All of them?"
But Furr countered in his closing, saying the risks of illness and early death were clear in major media reporting, and smokers knew it.
Furr said, "I'll be a little surprised if any of those remaining claims are even pursued. It would be extremely difficult for any plaintiff to demonstrate any cause or relationship with those cigarettes."
Furr, a Charleston native who now practices in Winston-Salem, N.C., also represented tobacco companies in the medical monitoring phase of the tobacco litigation that was tried in Wheeling. That was also a complete defense verdict - the jury decided the companies were not liable for medical testing of affected smokers.
Murray Garnick, speaking on behalf of Philip Morris, said, "Although we disagree with the jury's verdict on this narrow claim, in the event that any plaintiff chooses to pursue this claim, PM USA has strong defenses."
He said, "We believe that the jury appropriately rejected the plaintiffs' claims for design defect, negligence, failure to warn, breach of warranty and concealment and refused to find that any of PM USA's conduct warranted punitive damages."
Contact writer Cheryl Caswell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4832.