Massachusetts court knocks $81M off award against tobacco company

The family of a Boston woman who died of lung cancer in 2002 at the age of 54 filed a wrongful death lawsuit against a North Carolina tobacco company that allegedly handed out free cigarettes to the woman when she was a child. A jury originally awarded the woman’s family $152 million in damages, which was reduced to $116 million by a judge before being appealed by the tobacco company.

On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the family was entitled to keep the $35 million in compensatory damages, but tossed out an additional $81 million that was awarded in punitive damages award. Massachusetts’  highest court also ordered a new trial on that part of the case after concluding that the jury had received improper instructions. Additionally, the court vacated the finding that the woman’s death was caused by negligence on behalf of the tobacco company.

Personal injury lawsuits filed against Big Tobacco on behalf of smokers, their families and the government have been prevalent in the United States for the past several decades. Although the cases are often very complex and time-consuming, thousands of plaintiffs have been successful at suing tobacco companies in recent years, many of whom argue that the tobacco companies knowingly got consumers hooked on a product that would eventually kill them.

In the case involving the late Boston woman, her family alleged that she became addicted to cigarettes after getting samples for free as a child. The tobacco company claimed that it gave out free samples to adults but never children; however, in a video-tapped deposition the woman made before her death, she testified that she was repeatedly given free Newport cigarette samples at a playground near her home around the age of 13.

The deceased woman also testified that she smoked about 1.5 packs per day and tried to quit more than 50 times without success.

Source: Boston Globe, “Mass. court tosses part of cigarette samples case,” Bridget Murphy, June 11, 2013