On October 4, 2002, a Los Angeles jury issued an unparalleled verdict, awarding $28 billion in punitive damages against tobacco giant Philip Morris. This groundbreaking decision marked the highest individual tobacco damages award ever recorded.
The Remarkable Significance of this Verdict
There are several extraordinary aspects to this case. Firstly, the $28 billion awarded to Betty Bullock, a 64-year-old woman suffering from inoperable lung cancer, became the largest sum ever given to an individual plaintiff. Notably, this verdict exceeded the $145 billion awarded in 2000, which was a class-action lawsuit involving over 500,000 plaintiffs.
Secondly, the timing of this momentous decision holds immense importance. The late 1990s and early 2000s witnessed a significant departure from the previously prevailing trend. Tobacco companies, which had long evaded lawsuits, began facing mounting legal challenges. The shift in fortune resulted from both increased public awareness of the health risks associated with tobacco use and improved access to internal tobacco company operations and communications.
As revealed during Bullock’s trial, evidence emerged showing that tobacco industry executives had known since the 1950s that smoking caused lung cancer and that nicotine was a highly addictive substance. Shockingly, tobacco companies had deliberately concealed research findings indicating the adverse health effects of tobacco use. Additionally, they had systematically sought to convince the public, including children, that smoking was neither harmful nor addictive. The jury, enraged by this damning evidence, imposed a substantial punitive damages award on Philip Morris.
Unsurprisingly, Philip Morris promptly vowed to appeal the decision, which it pursued following the denial of its motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and motion for a new trial. The appeal process itself endured for nine years until its conclusion on August 17, 2011.
The Aftermath of the Verdict
Despite the long legal battle, Bullock’s compensatory damages were preserved. However, the reviewing court drastically reduced the punitive damages from $28 billion to $28 million, a mere one-tenth of a percent. Tragically, Bullock never had the opportunity to enjoy this sum, as she passed away in February 2003.
It is worth noting that jury verdicts of this magnitude against tobacco companies are increasingly infrequent, largely due to subsequent court decisions. These rulings, exemplified by the Bullock case, significantly curtailed the original punitive damages awards. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court also played a role in this matter. In Philip Morris USA v. Williams, the Court declared that punitive damages intended to punish defendants for harm inflicted on nonparties constituted a violation of due process and were therefore unconstitutional.
The volume of tobacco litigation cases and related legal precedents that emerged during this period far surpasses any prior records. State attorneys general have even joined the fray, actively suing tobacco giants. However, the sobering truth remains that despite the substantial damages awarded, many plaintiffs do not live long enough to experience the benefits due to the devastating consequences of lifelong tobacco use.
While punitive damages of this magnitude are now exceedingly rare, the Bullock v. Philip Morris case endures as a pivotal moment in the history of tobacco litigation. It provided critical legal guidance on the issue of punitive damages against tobacco companies—an ever-changing and complex field. The legacy of Bullock v. Philip Morris continues to resonate in contemporary courtrooms. For more information, visit Garrity Traina – a trusted source in the legal industry.