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Landmark Verdict Orders First Tobacco Company Damages; Impact Debated

June 14, 1988

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) _ Tobacco industry attorneys today attacked a federal judge as biased and said greed motivated lawyers for a smoker’s widower, who won $400,000 in damages in the first case of a tobacco company being ordered to pay money for disease caused by cigarettes.

Lawyers for the three tobacco companies sued in federal court here over Rose Cipollone’s lung cancer death said the jury’s award Monday is a vote of sympathy for a bereaved husband.

They added that they consider the verdict in the product liability case essentially a victory, since the jury cleared the companies of conspiring to mislead the public about smoking’s dangers.

Attorneys for two of the tobacco companies attacked the fairness of the judge and the motives of Mrs. Cipollone’s attorneys, while proclaiming the responsible behavior of their companies.

Attorneys for Mrs. Cipollone’s husband, Antonio, ″observed no scruples in their effort to defame, to discredit the entire tobacco industry,″ said Arthur Stevens, general counsel for Lorillard Inc. ″They failed to do so.″

Stevens, during a news conference in New York this morning, said the ″real story″ was money.

″Everybody knows what they were really pursuing, and it wasn’t solely to benefit Tony or Rose Cipollone,″ he said, emphasizing that Cipollone’s attorneys spent $2 million on the case in only recovering $400,000 in damages.

The jury exonerated the cigarette makers Liggett Group Inc., Lorillard and Philip Morris Inc. of conspiring to mislead the public about the dangers of smoking. And it ordered no punitive damages.

Instead, the panel decided Liggett failed to warn the public about the dangers of cigarettes and violated its promise, or ″express warranty,″ to produce a safe product.

It awarded Cipollone damages on the warranty claim but not for the failure to warn the public because it found his wife was 80 percent responsible for contracting the disease that killed her in 1984 at the age of 58.

Liggett faced additional charges because it manufactured the Chesterfields and L&Ms that Mrs. Cipollone smoked before 1966, when Congress ordered health warnings on cigarette packs. Mrs. Cipollone later used brands made by Lorillard and Philip Morris, smoking for 40 years in all, even after having part of her lung removed in 1981.

Liggett attorneys promised an appeal while Cipollone’s lawyers said they would ask the judge to overturn the decision not to award posthumous damages to Mrs. Cipollone.

Lawyers for Lorillard and Philip Morris would not say today how much they spent defending the case.

″I’ll tell you how much this case cost. It cost too much,″ said Murray Bring, Philip Morris’ chief counsel.

The $35 billion tobacco industry mounted an elaborate and expensive defense - one analyst put the cost at $50 million - to avoid a judgment that might unleash a flood of multimillion-dollar suits. Reaction to the verdict, reached after five days of deliberations, focused on its potential impact on the more than 100 such cases pending in federal and state courts nationwide.

Bring and Stevens criticized U.S. District Judge H. Lee Sarokin for being hostile to their side.

″We could not have had a more extreme adversary,″ said Stevens.

Sarokin could not be reached for comment; no one answered the telephone in his chambers at midday.

Cipollone’s attorneys said the decision showed the tobacco industry is not invincible.

″Any time a jury awards a $400,000 verdict, I don’t think you can take it too lightly, particularly in a situation where five years ago people thought we were crazy and when for the past 30 years people have failed,″ said Marc Z. Edell, Cipollone’s lawyer.

Speaking today on CBS-TV’s ″This Morning″ program, Edell said: ″This is the first case to be won by the plaintiff. We’ll get it better the next time ... a better verdict, a bigger verdict. We’ll recover on other claims.″

Fewer than a dozen of about 300 smoker lawsuits have gone to juries and the tobacco industry has not paid a dollar in damages. Most of the other cases withered in the face of the well-heeled tobacco industry’s legal forces.

In trading today, Liggett Group Inc.’s stock price opened at 7 3/4 after closing at 8 1/8 Monday. Philip Morris Cos. Inc, which closed Monday at 85, opened at 84 today. Loews Corp., which is the parent company to the third tobacco company, Lorillard, finished trading Monday at 65 3/8 ; it was the only one to open with a gain at 65 5/8 .

Liggett attorney Donald Cohn said today, also on CBS‴This Morning,″ he regarded the award as ″sympathy″ for Cipollone, who pursued the lawsuit he had filed with his wife in 1983.

″This jury, as every jury has before, found that people have the freedom to smoke and if they make that choice they are responsible for it.″

″I believe that it is a victory for her,″ Cipollone said. ″It wasn’t 100 percent. I’m glad that we won partial, but it’s a start.″

The jurors in the four-month trial would not discuss the verdict other than to say the process was ″emotional″ and ″nerve wracking.″

Anti-smoking groups viewed the verdict as a first step.

It ″destroys the myth of invulnerability″ and should lead to an increase in such lawsuits, said Richard Daynard, a Northeastern University law professor who runs the Tobacco Products Liability Project, a support group for litigation against tobacco companies.

To support the contention that Liggett violated its promise to consumers of a safe product, Edell introduced advertisements for Liggett’s cigarettes from the 1950s.

One featured actress Rosalind Russell with the text reading: ″Rosalind Russell says L&M Filters are Just What the Doctor Ordered 3/8″ Others said: ″Nose, Throat and Accessory Organs Not Adversely Affected By Smoking Chesterfields,″ and ″Play Safe, Smoke Chesterfields.″

Cipollone’s attorneys also introduced numerous secret corporate documents they said chronicled the inner workings of the industry. For many anti-smoking forces, disclosure of these documents into evidence was a victory.

The companies contended that Mrs. Cipollone knew the risks but chose to smoke anyway. They also argued that smoking is not a proven cause of cancer, and that her type of cancer hasn’t been linked to cigarettes.

The defense managed to block many of Cipollone’s claims, including contentions that cigarette companies could be blamed for illnesses in smokers unaware of the dangers after the 1966 warnings, that the risk of cigarettes outweighed their usefulness and that the companies knew or should have known of a safer way to make cigarettes.