Oregon Jury Awards $25M In Smoker’s Death

February 21, 2012

An Oregon jury has awarded $25 million in punitive damages in the death of a Salem smoker whose family sued tobacco company Philip Morris USA over its low-tar cigarettes.

The award is the second time a jury has considered punitive damages in the 1999 death of Michelle Schwarz, who died of lung cancer that spread, The Oregonian reported.

In 2002, another Multnomah County jury in Portland awarded the family $150 million, later reduced by the trial judge to $100 million. In 2010, the Oregon Supreme Court vacated the $100 million award and sent the case back to the trial court for reconsideration of the punitive damages.

A Schwarz family lawyer, Chuck Tauman, said a final resolution is likely years away.

“We are anticipating a long road ahead,” he said, adding he was pleased with the verdict.

Murray Garnick is a senior vice president with a component of Philip Morris’ parent company Altria Group Inc. In a statement, Garnick said the new award is “unconstitutionally excessive and violates Supreme Court decisions limiting punitive damages awards.”

During a two-week trial, jurors were told not to consider whether Schwarz was at fault for her death and to only consider how “reprehensible” Philip Morris was. Attorneys for Philip Morris, however, told jurors that Schwarz should have known that low-tar cigarettes could lead to an early death.

The earlier jury awarded more than $168,000 in economic and noneconomic damages.

Frank Kelly, a lawyer for Philip Morris, said Schwarz had known since she was a little girl growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s that smoking was dangerous. Her parents were smokers.

Schwarz began smoking in 1964 when she was 18.

In 1976, Philip Morris introduced a low-tar cigarette under the brand Merit. Schwarz, who smoked a pack a day, believed the low-tar cigarettes weren’t as harmful as regular cigarettes, so she switched, testimony indicated.

Kelly said that it was widely believed in the 1960s, 1970s and later that the less tar there was in cigarettes, the better.

Under Oregon law, 60 percent of the $25 million award is supposed to go to the state crime victims’ compensation program, and 40 percent to Schwarz’s estate.

In December, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that Philip Morris USA must pay Oregon 60 percent of a $79.5 million award in a long-running lawsuit filed by the family of a Portland smoker.

Philip Morris had paid that family its share of the judgment but contested the requirement to pay the state.

The company argued that the state released its right to collect that money with the company’s master settlement agreement in 1998 with 46 states, five U.S. territories and the District of Columbia over claims about smoking.

The Supreme Court’s ruling said the state’s share of punitive damages is due no matter what sort of lawsuit led to the award. That money is from a 1999 jury award in a lawsuit filed by the family of Jesse Williams, a janitor who had died two years earlier of lung cancer.

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