Massachusetts $81M in punitive damages for giving kids free cigarettes

By Rodrique Ngowi

Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) -- A tobacco company that had tried to hook black children on cigarettes was ordered last week to pay $81 million in punitive damages to the estate and son of a Boston woman who started smoking at age 13, in what an attorney said is one of the largest jury awards of its kind in the United States.

The verdict came one day after jurors decided Greensboro, N.C.-based Lorillard Tobacco Co. should pay $71 million in compensatory damages to Willie Evans and the estate of his mother, Marie, who died of lung cancer in 2002. Their lawsuit claimed Marie Evans began smoking after Lorillard gave away free cigarette samples at the Boston housing project where she lived.

During the trial, a lawyer for Lorillard said that like many other cigarette companies it gave samples decades ago to adults in an attempt to get them to switch brands. But the company insisted it did not give cigarettes to children and called the allegation that it intentionally gave samples to black children "disturbing."

The company's lawyer also said Evans herself decided to start smoking and continued to smoke even after she suffered a heart attack in 1985 and her doctors repeatedly urged her to quit.

A company spokesman declined to comment and referred to a statement issued a day earlier that said Lorillard disagrees with the jury verdict and would appeal.

Still, that did not discourage attorneys for Evans from savoring success in court.

Marie Evans "was vindicated" and got what she had wanted when she sat for three days of videotaped deposition just weeks before she died, said Michael Weisman, one of her son's attorneys.

"One of the questions I asked her was, 'Is this something you really want to do?'" Weisman said. "She said she did, and she wanted to do it because she wanted to tell her story because ... one day she wanted the jury to hear her story."

Her son was gratified by Thursday's jury verdict, Weisman said.

"He was very proud that he had been there and had done what his mom wanted him to do," Weisman said.

Edward L. Sweda, senior attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Boston's Northeastern University School of Law, called the verdict "one of the largest individual punitive damages in the United States and it's combined with the largest compensatory damages verdict ever in the U.S. for an individual in a tobacco case."

A judge has yet to rule on allegations that Lorillard committed unfair or deceptive acts when it handed out the free cigarettes. The company makes Kent, True, Old Gold, Maverick and Max cigarettes.

Under Massachusetts law, the judge can award additional money to Evans and his mother's estate if there is evidence that Lorillard lied, was manipulative and committed illegal practices as a corporation, said Thomas Srisardi, another attorney for Evans.

Published: Mon, Dec 20, 2010