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Jury Says Altria Must Pay $13.8 M in Smoker Lawsuit

Altria Group Inc., parent company of Philip Morris USA, the Marlboro cigarette maker, must pay $13.8 million in punitive damages to the daughter of a lifelong smoker who died of lung cancer in 2003, a jury found.

The verdict for Jodie Bullock, daughter of Betty Bullock, who smoked Marlboro and Benson & Hedges cigarettes for 45 years, was reached in Los Angeles. An earlier award of $28 billion from a 2002 trial had been first reduced by the trial judge and then canceled by an appeals court that ordered a new trial on punitive damages.

Bullock’s lawyer, Michael Piuze, told jurors Philip Morris misrepresented the risks of smoking for 50 years. He asked for “billions” in punitive damages, saying that anything less wouldn’t punish the company. Altria, the largest U.S. cigarette maker, reported 2008 sales of $19.4 billion.

Bullock, who was 64 at the time of the 2002 trial, began smoking Marlboros when she was 17. The former nurse claimed Philip Morris’s advertisements enticed her to start smoking and then the company misrepresented the risks when she could have quit with her health intact.

Philip Morris will keep its options open regarding a possible appeal of the verdict, Frank Kelly, a lawyer for the cigarette maker, said in an interview outside the courtroom.

The jury was split 9-3 for the $13.8 million damages award with the dissenters holding out for a bigger amount, Matt Reed, one of the jurors who voted against the award, said in an interview outside the courtroom. Reed said he would have awarded as much as half a billion dollars in punitive damages.

The 2002 jury awarded Bullock $850,000 in compensatory damages and $28 billion in punitive damages, the second-largest jury verdict in U.S. history, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The punitive-damages award was first reduced to $28 million by the trial judge, then was thrown out entirely by an appeals court that ordered a new trial, saying a judge erred in refusing to accept a jury instruction proposed by the company. The appeals judges rejected Philip Morris’s request for a new trial on liability.

The case is Bullock v. Philip Morris USA Inc., BC249171, Superior Court of California (Los Angeles County).

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