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Cigarettemaker told to pay $150-million in low-tar case

A jury ordered Philip Morris to pay $150-million in punitive damages Friday in a lawsuit that contended low-tar cigarettes are as dangerous as regular ones.

The jury found that Philip Morris had falsely represented that low-tar cigarettes are more healthful, the first verdict in the nation to make that finding. The tobacco company said it would appeal.

The jury also awarded $168,000 in compensatory damages to the estate of Michele Schwarz of Salem, Ore., who died of lung cancer at age 53 in 1999 after smoking low-tar Merit cigarettes.

Schwarz had switched from a regular filtered cigarette because she believed the low-tar version would be better for her health, said the attorney for her estate, Lawrence Wobbrock.

Wobbrock contended in court that Philip Morris marketed the cigarettes as having fewer health risks.

But James L. Dumas, one of the company's attorneys, said Philip Morris did not market Merits as healthier than regular filtered cigarettes. He said the company advertises them as milder, or less harsh.

Wobbrock said smokers were getting the same amount of tar by taking more puffs on their cigarettes and smoking them closer to the butt. But Dumas said it was not the company's fault that smokers figured out how to get around the low-tar design.

Dumas also said Schwarz, who worked in the office of her physician husband, was aware of the danger of cigarette smoke.

Attorney John Philips contended jurors were given "erroneous instructions" by the judge, but would not elaborate. He also said plaintiffs highlighted portions of documents on an overhead projector, amounting to "a guided tour through the documents."

The decision could become a significant factor in other lawsuits where low-tar cigarettes are at issue, said Edward L. Sweda, attorney with the Tobacco Products Liability Project in Boston.

"It proves such a case is winnable in a big way," said Sweda.