FORT LAUDERDALE — The first of about 8,000 lawsuits blaming the health problems and deaths of Florida smokers on tobacco companies went to trial Tuesday, more than two years after the state Supreme Court threw out a record $145 billion class-action verdict.
The high court in 2006 rejected the punitive damages awarded by a jury as excessive, but left in place the case's conclusions that tobacco companies knowingly sold dangerous products and concealed the health risks of smoking for years. But the court also ruled that smokers or their survivors must prove their cases individually.
Elaine Hess, widow of 40-year smoker Stuart Hess, is the first of those plaintiffs to go to trial. The key to the case is proving whether her husband was addicted to cigarettes made by Philip Morris of Richmond, Va., a unit of the Altria Group.
Hess attorney Adam Trop told a six-person jury that Stuart Hess, who died in 1997 of lung cancer at age 55, smoked about two packs of cigarettes a day and tried numerous times to quit. Trop said medical and other evidence shows that Hess became addicted to nicotine in the mid 1950s, long before the hazards of smoking were widely known outside the tobacco industry.
"Stuart Hess did not choose to become a lifelong customer of Philip Morris," Trop said. "They made that choice for him."
Philip Morris attorney Kenneth Reilly said there's no longer any dispute that cigarettes can cause lung cancer or that smoking is addictive. But Reilly said there is ample proof that Hess was not clinically addicted, that he was able to quit smoking at various times and that he knew the risks of smoking as a young man.
The outcome of the trial, expected to last about three weeks, is being closely watched by the tobacco industry and by the thousands of other Florida smokers and survivors who have filed similar lawsuits.