Tobacco Verdict Lawsuit Makes Waves In UK

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

London ( - Anti-smoking campaigners in the UK Thursday welcomed a Los Angeles jury's decision to award more than $3 billion to a lifelong smoker suffering from lung cancer, expressing the hope it may improve the prospect for litigation in Britain.

In the largest verdict to date in an individual tobacco case, the jury on Wednesday found tobacco giant Philip Morris liable for Richard Boeken's terminal cancer.

"I think this will inspire blind terror in the tobacco industry world wide," said Clive Bates, director of a group called Action on Smoking and Health (ASH).

"The award ... is an awesome judgment on the conduct of Big Tobacco and a mighty hammer blow against Philip Morris."

Bates said companies like Philip Morris could easily afford a few million dollars here and there to settle claims, but when the payouts were measured in billions, then they started to feel them.

"The idea of punitive damages is to come up with a sum that penalizes the company responsible for the damage - that's why the sums are so large."

Bates said the Los Angeles verdict made the prospect for cases in other jurisdictions more promising.

"But our legal system is much less favorable to this type of litigation," he acknowledged of the British situation. "Because we don't have the same concept of punitive damages, the incentives for lawyers to take on cases on no-win no-fee agreements are less attractive."

And if smokers lost their cases, he added, they would face bankruptcy by having to pay the tobacco company's legal costs.

Two years ago 50 smokers suffering from lung cancer brought a case against tobacco manufacturers in Britain, but it was thrown out on a legal technicality relating to the statute of limitations.

In the LA case, the plaintiff claimed the company had not warned him of the dangers of smoking two packs of Marlboros a day. Philip Morris had contended that Boeken ignored health warnings printed on the side of cigarette packs in the U.S. since the 1960s.

Bates had little sympathy for such arguments. "In cases like this, people often comment that the smokers should take more responsibility. In fact, the contributory negligence of the smoker is usually recognized, but what is under scrutiny in the court is the behavior of the tobacco company.

"Given their history of recruiting and addicting teenagers and lying about the health effects for 40 years, the U.S. juries are starting to hold them accountable for the harm caused by their product," he said.

Britain's Tobacco Manufacturers' Association said Thursday it was making no comment on the award.

The association has been at loggerheads with the authorities in the UK and the European Union, as well as with advocacy groups like ASH over tobacco advertising.

Last month the European Parliament approved tough anti-smoking laws that will force tobacco companies in the EU to devote a full one-third of every cigarette pack's packaging to black and white health warnings like "Smoking Kills."

The law also prohibits manufacturers from using terms that may imply their brands are safer than others, such as "mild" and "light."

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow