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Thursday, February 11, 1999 Published at 07:56 GMT

World: Americas

Smoker wins $51m damages

Philip Morris is to appeal against the ruling

America's biggest tobacco company has been ordered to pay a California woman suffering from inoperable lung cancer more than $50m in punitive damages.

Rupert Carey: "America's tobacco industry is now on the defensive"
The jury in San Francisco had already ruled that Philip Morris, maker of Marlboro cigarettes, was liable to pay Patricia Henley $1.5m for her pain and suffering as well as cover her medical expenses.

The total award was the largest to date in a tobacco liability lawsuit filed by an individual smoker. Other awards have been overturned on appeal.

Patricia Henley: "I trusted the company"
"I'm feeling numb. It was a great jury and it took a brave jury to make this decision," said Ms Henley, 53, a lifelong smoker. She has pledged to donate any money she receives to educate youngsters about the dangers of smoking.

[ image: Patricia Henley (left) leaves court with her lawyer]
Patricia Henley (left) leaves court with her lawyer
The San Francisco jury more than tripled the $15 million she had requested. Shares in the company fell in value in response to the ruling.

Lawyers for Philip Morris immediately said they would appeal against the decision, which legal analysts say could open the way for a raft of new lawsuits against tobacco companies by individual sick smokers.

"It's obviously a verdict that is out of line with what almost every other jury has done with a case like this," defence lawyer William Ohlemeyer said afterwards.

"Sometimes juries unfortunately let their emotions or feelings of sympathy get in the way of some of the facts they have to decide."

The punitive damage award followed the jury's decision on Tuesday to give Henley $1.5 million in compensatory damages for the pain, suffering and medical costs she has incurred since being diagnosed with fatal lung cancer and quitting smoking in 1997.

No warning

Ms Henley, who started smoking at the age of 15, argued that she had become addicted to cigarettes long before tobacco companies began warning consumers about the health dangers of their products.

The case is the first in California since the repeal of a law which bans such law suits under the notion that the risks of smoking were well known.

The US tobacco industry came to a $206 billion legal settlement with 46 states last November but cigarette makers still face group lawsuits and individual lawsuits by smokers.

[ image: Tobacco growers are a powerful lobby]
Tobacco growers are a powerful lobby
Money from the deal, the biggest civil settlement in US legal history, is earmarked to pay for treatment for smoking-related illnesses and to launch a programme to discourage young people from smoking.

President Clinton wants the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to impose tough new curbs on the tobacco companies. However, he is likely to meet stiff opposition from members of Congress whose constituencies include tobacco farmers and producers.

Professor Ray Donnelly, founder and medical director of the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, said: "The Anti-Death from Smoking Lobby are giving two big cheers this morning.

"We'll give the other one when we know the result of the appeal by Philip Morris because the tobacco industry are past masters at using the legal system to escape their responsibilities by having these decisions overturned."

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