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In what is believed to be the first wrongful death victory over smokeless chewing tobacco, the makers of Skoal and Copenhagen smokeless chewing tobacco have been ordered to pay $5 million to the family of a long-time user. Bobby Hill began chewing tobacco at the age of 13 and continued until his death from mouth cancer at 42.
The case featured some interesting and ultimately convincing evidence including: thank you notes written to minors for their use of Skoal, complimentary can openers to help open the can and free samples.
Although none of those tactics are employed today, they nevertheless provided examples of the company encouraging an unhealthy and ultimately deadly past time. The fact that Hill did not smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol was also helpful in drawing a strong connection between his use of tobacco and his death.
"So this is an unusual instance that runs counter to what has sort of been the playbook for tobacco litigation," Mark Gottlieb, director of the Tobacco Products Liability Project, told the Macon Telegraph. "The settlement shows that perhaps there is a new strategy afoot in dealing with some of these types of cases."
Whether this victory over U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., the maker of Skoal and Copenhagen, will open the door to other similar lawsuits will be interesting to follow.
Much like cigarette makers saw a deluge of lawsuits by families of smokers, smokeless chewing tobacco may also become vulnerable. However, both the evidence and nature of this trial are unique. Plaintiffs may find it difficult to prove the unhealthy effect of smokeless chewing tobacco. In this case, the $5 million payday came as the result of a pretrial settlement.