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Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Court affirms widow's $21m verdict vs. Big Tobacco, upholds punitive damages despite '98 settlement

Marlboro Red Open Box by Sarah Johnson (CC BY 2.0)
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed a $21m verdict against Philip Morris USA in favor of the widow of a smoker who died of lung cancer in 2016.

Fred R. Laramie started smoking in 1970, at age 13, when a store clerk gave him a free sample pack of Marlboros, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recounted.  He became a pack-a-day smoker and remained loyal to the brand, unable to quit despite trying, until his diagnosis and death in 2016.

Laramie's wife, Pamela, sued under the Massachusetts wrongful death statute.  She alleged that Marlboros were dangerously defective for their engineered addictive properties, an excess of the risk of smoking known to consumers and indicated on cigarette labels since 1969.  The jury in the Superior Court awarded Pamela Laramie $11m in compensatory damages and $10m in punitive damages.

The bulk of the high court's 37-page, unanimous opinion analyzes the inventive defense argument that the large punitive award is precluded by the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) of state claims against Big Tobacco.  As the court recalled in a footnote:

The [Big Tobacco] defendants agreed to pay approximately $240 billion to the settling States over twenty-five years, and to pay approximately $9 billion per year thereafter in perpetuity, subject to various adjustments. The agreement allocated approximately four percent of those payments to the Commonwealth. The defendants also agreed to restrict cigarette advertising and lobbying efforts, to permit public access to certain internal documents, and to fund youth education programs.

Punitive damages are not awarded in Massachusetts common law; they must be authorized by statute.  The wrongful death statute authorizes punitive damages when the defendant caused injury "by ... malicious, willful, wanton or reckless conduct ... or by ... gross negligence."

The plaintiff successfully relied on internal documents of Big Tobacco that demonstrate the artificial manipulation of the nicotine content in cigarettes.  In the 1990s, the revelation of such records marked the plaintiff breakthrough that precipitated the collapse of Big Tobacco's long-successful wall of defenses in product liability litigation.  The revelation represented, more or less, the information at issue in the case of whistleblower-scientist Jeffrey Wigand, reported in 1996 by Vanity Fair and 60 Minutes and subject of the 1999 feature film, The Insider.

The SJC rejected the defense argument of claim preclusion.  The court recognized a qualitative difference between the claims of the Attorney General that resulted in the MSA and the claim of Laramie that persuaded a jury.

The "wrong" the plaintiff sought to remedy was the loss she and her daughter sustained due to Laramie's death, caused by Philip Morris's malicious, willful, wanton, reckless, or grossly negligent conduct, see [wrongful death statute,] G. L. c. 229, § 2. The "wrong" the Attorney General sought to remedy, by contrast, was the Commonwealth's increased medical expenditures caused by Philip Morris's commission of unfair or deceptive acts or practices in violation of [consumer protection law,] G. L. c. 93A, § 2.

Product liability, like punitive damages, is not a function of common law in Massachusetts, at least formally.  The commonwealth imposes strict product liability through a wide-ranging consumer protection statute, "chapter 93A."  Product liability is effectuated formally as a warranty obligation by eliminating the requirement of contractual privity between plaintiff and defendant.  But from that point, functionally, the courts breathe life into the system with multistate common law norms.

Probably Philip Morris's best argument for claim preclusion arose in the theory that chapter 93A affords treble damages, which were incorporated, in theory, into the MSA, and therefore overlaps with chapter 229 in wrongful death.  But the court distinguished the two statutes.  While both afford punitive recovery, the tests and purposes differ.  Damages under 93A were predicated on commercial practices that caused injury to state interests, while 229 damages, which are not capped, arise from culpability in inflicting personal injury on a decedent in a wrongful death action, here, Fred Laramie.

The court rejected a range of other asserted errors, whether because not error or harmless error, in relation to evidentiary admissions, jury instructions, and closing arguments.  Philip Morris had prevailed in the trial court on plaintiff claims of negligence and civil conspiracy.

With regard to jury instructions, the SJC distinguished product liability in warning defect, which was not plaintiff's theory of liability, from the design defect the plaintiff did claim.  The jury was properly instructed, the court held, that 

congressionally mandated warnings were adequate as a matter of law to warn Mr. Laramie and other members of the public of the hazards associated with smoking. The law, however, does not permit a cigarette manufacturer through its statements or actions to mislead consumers or make misrepresentations about the risks or hazards associated with smoking.

Philip Morris complained that the jury was thereby misled to test for liability in misrepresentation or warning defect.  The excerpted bit strikes me, too, as problematic.  Nevertheless, the SJC wrote that the jury was correctly instructed on the elements, so the instructions were "clear" when "viewed as a whole."

Interesting for torts pedagogy in product liability is the court's recitation of defense theories that were rejected at trial.

In its defense, Philip Morris introduced evidence that there was no adequate, safer alternative design for Marlboro cigarettes. An expert for Philip Morris testified that all cigarettes are dangerous, and that any proposed alternative design was not safer, not acceptable to consumers, or not technologically feasible. Philip Morris maintained that Marlboro cigarettes were not unreasonably dangerous to Laramie because Laramie understood the risks of smoking.

Reports linking smoking to cancer had been published in the 1950s and 1960s, and people had recognized that tobacco was addictive "going back almost [one hundred] years."  Moreover, there was testimony that every pack of Marlboro cigarettes sold between 1970 and 1984 contained a warning label from the Surgeon General that "cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health," and that every pack sold thereafter contained one of four warning labels that are still in use. Cigarette advertisements also were banned from television and radio beginning in January 1971, when Laramie was thirteen or fourteen years old. In addition, since January 1972, every print advertisement for cigarettes has been required to include a warning label similar to those on cigarette packs.

In sum, based on this evidence, Philip Morris argued that Laramie caused his own death because, despite being adequately informed of the health risks of smoking, Laramie chose to smoke, and then chose not to quit smoking.

(Paragraph breaks added.)  The plaintiff overcame the no-alternative-design defense by hypothesizing that Fred Laramie might not have become addicted to a low-nicotine cigarette.  Defense theories in assumption of risk, personal choice, and sufficiency of warning all fell short against the showing of nicotine manipulation.

The case is Laramie v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., No. SJC-13070 (Mass. Sept. 15, 2021) (oral argument at Suffolk Law).  Justice Dalila Argaez Wendlandt authored the opinion for the unanimous panel of six justices.  Disclosure: As an attorney in private practice, I worked on the Philip Morris defense team on tobacco litigation in the 1990s.

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