FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) - A jury on Thursday began debating
whether a man who chain-smoked at least two packs of cigarettes a
day for decades was helplessly addicted to nicotine as his widow
claimed in a lawsuit seeking damages for his death from tobacco giant Philip Morris.
The lawsuit by Elaine Hess, widow of Stuart Hess, is the first of about 8,000 such cases to go to trial since the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 threw out a $145 billion class-action jury award filed by thousands of smokers and their families.
The state's high court upheld the conclusion that tobacco companies knowingly sold dangerous products and concealed smoking's health risks, but ruled each case must be proven individually. If the jury finds Hess was addicted and that caused his death from lung cancer, the issue of money damages would be decided later.
In closing arguments Thursday, Hess attorneys Gary Paige and Alex Alvarez said Stuart Hess smoked heavily for 40 years and tried numerous times to quit, even trying hypnosis at one point. But they said the nicotine was too powerful, forcing Hess to continue smoking even as he was undergoing chemotherapy before he died in 1997 at age 55.
"People smoke because they're addicted, not because they choose to," Paige said. "Nobody wants to be addicted to cigarettes. It's as addictive as cocaine and heroin."
Kenneth Reilly, attorney for Richmond, Va.-based Philip Morris - a unit of Altria Group - said Hess' own medical records show that he was able to quit from time to time but made the decision each time to resume smoking despite doctor's advice to stop. Reilly said thousands of smokers successfully quit each year.
"From an objective standard, have they proved Mr. Hess was addicted? The answer is no," Reilly said.
The trial, which began Feb. 3, is being closely watched by the tobacco industry and by the thousands of other Florida smokers and survivors who have filed similar lawsuits. Although it does not have direct legal effect on those other lawsuits, the Hess case could signal how they will turn out.
Much of Hess' evidence concerned the tobacco industry's well-documented efforts to hide and downplay the dangers of smoking, but Reilly said Hess was well aware by the mid-1960s of government warnings about health risks.
The $145 billion damage award by a Miami jury - in 2000 the largest such punitive award in U.S. history - was thrown out as excessive by the state Supreme Court. It involved a class of smokers estimated at about 700,000 as part of a 1994 lawsuit filed by Miami Beach Dr. Howard Engle, a pediatrician who had smoked for decades and couldn't quit.
At the time, the Engle case was the first class-action lawsuit against tobacco companies to make it to trial in the U.S.