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Wednesday, March 31, 1999 Published at 04:45 GMT 05:45 UK

World: Americas

Tobacco company loses record case

Company and smoking victim were each found 50% negligent

A jury in Oregon has ordered the tobacco company, Philip Morris, to pay record damages to the family of a man who died of lung cancer in 1997.

Katty Kay reports: "Mrs Williams has made legal history"
In the biggest liability verdict ever against the tobacco industry, Philip Morris has been ordered to pay $81m to the widow and children of a janitor who had smoked the company's Marlboro cigarettes for 40 years.

Jesse Williams died at 67, five months after he was diagnosed with small-cell carcinoma of the lungs, leaving behind a wife and six adult children.

The company's share price plummeted after the verdict.

The family had sued for $100m but did not get the full amount because the jury found Jesse Williams himself 50% guilty of negligence.

Katty Kay reports: "Second blow for Philip Morris"
This is the second legal blow against Philip Morris in less than two months. In February, a jury ordered the company to pay $51.5m to a Marlboro smoker with terminal lung cancer.

Financial analysts say this latest case suggest that juries in America are starting to punish the tobacco industry, and it could open the door to more such suits.

Company to appeal

Philip Morris said the ruling was the product of passion and prejudice.

"Pretty clearly there were errors in the case," Philip Morris lawyer Walter Cofer told American television. "We certainly will appeal."

BBC Washington correspondent Katty Kay says precedents suggest that the company has a chance of escaping the payment.

So far in America, all verdicts of damages against cigarette manufacturers have been overturned at appeal.

[ image: Tobacco growers are a powerful lobby]
Tobacco growers are a powerful lobby
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.

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.

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