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L.A. jury clears tobacco companies of blame for smoker’s cancer

ALEX VEIGA, Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A jury Thursday cleared Philip Morris of negligence and misrepresentation in a lawsuit by a man who blamed the tobacco giant for the 48-year smoking habit that caused his lung cancer.

Frederic Reller, 64, of Marina del Rey, alleged that the nation’s largest cigarette manufacturer misled him by failing, for years, to acknowledge that smoking is addictive and may cause cancer.

His suit sought unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. The jury was deadlocked on one count alleging it fraudulently concealed the dangers of smoking.

It was the first tobacco suit to go to trial since the U.S. Supreme Court in April set limits on punitive damages in a lawsuit against an insurance company over a car accident. The high court did not give a formula for determining what punishment is reasonable but said juries should not consider a company’s wealth in making the decision.

The tobacco case revolved around the issue of whether Philip Morris was responsible for the smoking habit that Reller developed when he was 16.

Jurors were shown a video clip of tobacco company executives testifying under oath before a congressional committee in 1994 that nicotine is not addictive. Other executives later told Congress that it was addictive and that smoking could cause cancer.

The company gave smokers “a psychological crutch to continue smoking,” Reller’s attorney, Michael Piuze, told jurors in his opening statement.

Piuze argued that his client had managed to kick alcoholism and might have tried to quit smoking earlier had the tobacco industry been upfront about the hazards.

Philip Morris argued that the company had nothing to do with Reller’s decision to start smoking and said he only switched to its Marlboro brand in 1964.

Attorney Beth Wilkinson noted that cigarette packs have carried warning labels since 1966.

The case was one of three suits against tobacco companies currently being tried across the nation.

Four of the last five cases brought by smokers against tobacco companies in California courts have ended in judgments of millions of dollars to plaintiffs. They are in various stages of appeal.

Another Piuze client, Betty Bullock, accepted a $28 million punitive damage judgment against Philip Morris last year after a judge reduced the jury award of $28 billion. Those damages were in addition to $850,000 she received for economic damage and pain and suffering.

She contended that the company knowingly concealed the harmfulness of its cigarettes and manipulated the level of nicotine to keep its customers addicted.