FORT LAUDERDALE — A jury decided Thursday that a longtime chain-smoker's death from lung cancer was caused by nicotine addiction, a potentially costly loss for tobacco giant Philip Morris and an important test case for thousands of Florida lawsuits.
The lawsuit by Elaine Hess, widow of Stuart Hess, is the first of about 8,000 such cases to go to trial since the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 threw out a $145 billion jury award in a class-action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of smokers and their families.
The court upheld the conclusion that tobacco companies knowingly sold dangerous products and concealed smoking's health risks, but ruled each case must be proved individually.
Hess' attorneys have not revealed how much they will seek, but it would likely be in the millions of dollars.
In closing arguments, Hess attorneys Gary Paige and Alex Alvarez said Stuart Hess smoked heavily for 40 years and tried numerous times to quit, even trying hypnosis at one point. But they said the nicotine was too powerful, forcing Hess to continue smoking even as he was undergoing chemotherapy before he died in 1997 at age 55.
"People smoke because they're addicted, not because they choose to," Paige said. "Nobody wants to be addicted to cigarettes. It's as addictive as cocaine and heroin."
Kenneth Reilly, attorney for Philip Morris — a unit of Altria Group — said Hess' medical records show that he was able to quit from time to time but made the decision each time to resume smoking despite doctors' advice to stop. Reilly said thousands of smokers successfully quit each year.
Much of Hess' evidence concerned the tobacco industry's efforts to hide and downplay the dangers of smoking. Reilly said Hess was well aware by the mid 1960s of government warnings about health risks.