In the first phase of a case that may represent the standard for thousands of other similar cases, the AP reported that a jury on Thursday ruled that chain-smoker Stuart Hess's death was caused by his addiction to cigarettes. This ruling represents a serious blow to tobacco giant Philip Morris, which sought to avoid liability in this and related Florida cases.
The jury's decision that Hess did not continue smoking by his own choice was vitally important considering that Philip Morris lawyers had argued that Hess could have quit smoking. A Reuters story noted that the attorney for Elaine Hess, Stuart's widow, said "The next phase is to decide (compensatory) damages and our entitlement to punitive damages," and added "that the jury can assign a percentage of liability to the tobacco company and to the smoker."
Attorneys in the case haven't said how much money they are seeking from Philip Morris but the AP speculated that it would likely be in the millions of dollars.
The reason this case is of particular importance is because it is the first to go to trial since a 2006 Supreme Court of Florida ruling throwing out a $145 billion jury verdict in a class action suit. At that time, the state's high court said that although plaintiffs established that tobacco companies, each of the cases had to be established individually. The AP noted there are about 8,000 other cases that could be affected by a decision, one way or another, in the Hess case.
However, Philip Morris told the press it was not giving up. "'The Hess trial is not over,' said the Richmond, Va.-based company, a unit of Altria Group." Considering the past history of tobacco litigation, particularly with individuals' lawsuits, that could be the last thing someone would expect.