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Ex-smoker gets his money as life slips away

Published Jan. 15, 2005|Updated Aug. 24, 2005

John Eastman doesn't feel victorious. He doesn't feel like a man who took on Big Tobacco in a Pinellas County courtroom and won. He's too sick for that.

He can't stop the shaking in his hands. He's always out of breath and tires easily from chronic emphysema. The oxygen tank attached to his electric wheelchair keeps him alive.

Eastman, 76, a lifelong smoker who sued two tobacco companies and won a verdict in 2003, lived to collect more than $3.2-million after attorney's fees.

When someone visited him last week to collect a debt, his hands shook too badly to write a check.

"I'm sick, and I'm never going to get better," Eastman says. "What they paid, it's a drop in the bucket. I don't enjoy looking like this. They should have paid millions and millions so people could see their evil. They weren't punished enough for it."

Two years after a jury awarded him $3.26-million, saying Philip Morris USA and the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. were partially responsible for addicting him to the cigarettes that ruined his health, Eastman has finally collected much of his money.

With appeals exhausted, the tobacco companies paid $4.5-million (they also were assessed Eastman's attorney's fees) in November, the largest single judgment ever paid by Big Tobacco in an individual smoker's case through decades of litigation and hundreds of cases.

And it's the first time that Philip Morris, the world's largest cigarette maker, has ever been forced to pay a judgment in an individual case. In 1997, the tobacco industry agreed to pay a $349-million settlement in a class-action secondhand smoke lawsuit.

For Eastman, a former radio and TV personality once known as the dean of Tampa Bay talk radio, his money means being able to move out of his cramped apartment in Temple Terrace, where his wheelchair can barely navigate, into a house by the Hillsborough River. He closes on it next week.

It means being able to buy a $60,000 converted van that can accommodate his wheelchair, allowing him the freedom to travel again.

"It brings him as close to a normal lifestyle as a person in his condition can have," said his St. Petersburg attorney, Howard Acosta.

"He was so poor, he was desperate for money. Now he'll live the standard middle-class life that tobacco took away from him," he said.

Acosta withheld news of the payment until last week, when the last deadline to appeal further to the U.S. Supreme Court passed without action. Even if one had been filed, Acosta said, the appeal would have been fruitless.

A Philip Morris spokesman confirmed that this is the first judgment in an individual case it has paid, but he declined to comment about Eastman. Brown & Williamson officials could not be reached for comment.

During the trial in a St. Petersburg courtroom, a Philip Morris lawyer told jurors that Eastman knew the dangers of smoking.

"He exercised his choice," attorney Mathias Lydon said. "Some people eat too much fatty foods. Some people drink too much alcohol. Consequences are the result of those choices."

Edward Sweda, senior attorney at the Tobacco Products Liability Project at the Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, said the fact that this is the largest judgment ever paid is a testament to how tenaciously tobacco fights.

"They know there are millions of potential plaintiffs," Sweda said. "If they did anything but fight to the finish, they know more cases would be filed."

When he walked out of the courtroom with his verdict in April 2003, Eastman was angry that jurors hadn't granted punitive damages.

He wanted the companies punished.

Jurors gave him $6.5-million incompensatory and medical damages, but then cut the award in half by finding Eastman 50 percent at fault for his smoking.

The companies' share of the blame was divided roughly by how long Eastman smoked their products: Philip Morris was deemed 40 percent responsible and Brown & Williamson 10 percent.

After the verdict, Eastman said, "If there's anything just in society, I'll live to see them pay."

Four packs a day

Eastman started smoking when he was 12. Both of his parents smoked. When he came of age in the 1940s, cigarette ads dominated the airwaves, and the boy who wanted a radio career couldn't miss them.

The Iowa native began a career in radio in 1951.

Through five marriages and stints at radio stations from Iowa to Miami and finally in Tampa Bay starting in 1977, including a talk show on WTSP-Ch. 10, Eastman smoked _ Marlboros, Benson & Hedges, Lucky Strikes.

"I was addicted," he says. "Totally addicted. My love affair with tobacco was the most consistent love affair of my life."

Eastman's career and his life have taken a litany of unusual and interesting turns.

He co-wrote a 1965 episode of The Fugitive television series. He did voice-overs for the NFL's United Way campaign. His second wife, Marilyn, after they divorced, went on to star in The Night of the Living Dead as the bug-eating zombie.

He once counted Larry King as a good friend, and Eastman's third wife was King's ex.

His career in radio and TV ended a decade ago when Eastman was diagnosed with the most severe form of emphysema. He said it literally stole his voice and career. Later, he developed an aortic aneurysm. It was repaired in an operation shortly after his trial.

Both medical problems, doctors said, were related to his four-pack-a-day cigarette habit. After the emphysema diagnosis in 1995, Eastman tasted his last cigarette.

He now lives alone with his dog, a cairn terrier named Lucy. "She's my best pal," Eastman says. "She's been through it all with me."

After he filed suit in 1997, tobacco lawyers thoroughly investigated his life. All of his ex-wives were interviewed. Acosta estimates that the companies spent $5-million to defeat Eastman.

While battling tobacco, Eastman struggled to survive financially, living on Social Security and an Air Force pension.

"Tobacco made it as difficult as they possibly could for me," Eastman says. "They didn't pay me until the last moment of the last day."

Eastman says that up to $1-million of his tax-free award paid his many debts, including the bill for surgery to repair the aneurysm. Once he has bought the van and the house and a few other essentials, he figures he will have at least $2-million left.

He says he will put the rest in a conservative investment to provide a monthly income. His two grown children and grandchildren, he says, will have something when he's gone.

Eastman won't say what he paid for his new house. "I bought it for Lucy and me.

"I'm going to die there," he says. "I'm not going to sit and waste away in some hospital or a nursing home. I have enough money now to pay for people to come and care for me until I'm dead. And tobacco gave me that."

_ William R. Levesque can be reached at (813) 226-3436 or levesquesptimes.com.

TIMELINE: SMOKERS' LAWSUITS

1954: A St. Louis factory worker was the first smoker to sue tobacco companies for causing lung cancer. The suit was dropped in 1967.

1988: The family of Rose Cipollone of New Jersey was awarded $400,000 from Liggett Group Inc. for failure to warn her about smoking's dangers. The verdict was overturned on appeal.

AUG. 31, 1995: The family of Beverly Hills, Calif., psychologist Milton Horowitz, who died in 1994 of lung cancer, was awarded $1.9-million from Lorillard Inc., maker of Kent cigarettes, whose Micronite filters contained asbestos.

OCT. 10, 1997: Four companies agreed to pay $300-million over three years to fund a research center for the study of smoking-related diseases, $49-million to lawyers Stanley M. and Susan Rosenblatt and no compensation to their clients _ flight attendants who claimed in a Dade County lawsuit that their health had been damaged by exposure to secondhand smoke.

FEB. 9-10, 1999: Lung cancer sufferer Patricia Henley of Los Angeles won $51.5-million from Philip Morris (it later was cut to $9-million).

MARCH 30, 1999: An Oregon jury ordered Philip Morris to pay $80-million to the family of a Portland, Ore., man, Jesse Williams, who had died of lung cancer at 67.

MAY 8, 2000: A jury gave $1.04-million to the family of Daisy Bucedi of San Francisco, who died in 1997 at 78 of malignant abdominal mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos from Kent filtered cigarettes.

JUNE 6, 2001: A jury awarded lung cancer sufferer Richard Boeken, 56, $3-billion from Philip Morris in Los Angeles; the sum later was reduced to $100-million.

JUNE 29, 2001: Lung cancer sufferer Grady Carter, 71, of Jacksonville was awarded $1.1-million after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.

MARCH 22, 2002: A Portland, Ore., jury awarded the family of Marlene Schwartz, who died of lung cancer at 52 in 1999, $150-million from Philip Morris; the sum was cut to $100-million.

DEC. 18, 2002: A Los Angeles judge slashed from $28-billion to $28-million an award from Philip Morris to lung cancer sufferer Betsy Bullock, 64.

Source: www.tobacco.org/Newsday

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