Judge rules $3 billion punitive damages excessive in tobacco suit
LOS ANGELES (AP) – A judge ruled Thursday that a jury’s $3 billion punitive damages verdict against Philip Morris Cos. was excessive but the tobacco giant will only get a retrial of the punitive issue if the cancer-stricken plaintiff won’t accept a reduction to $100 million.
Superior Court Judge Charles W. McCoy issued a written ruling on a motion by the company which argued that the punitive award was excessive and that the company will likely face similar cases and could not pay $3 billion to every plaintiff.
In June a jury awarded Richard Boeken, 56, the multibillion-dollar punitive award in addition to $5.5 million in compensatory damages. It was the largest award in an individual lawsuit against a tobacco company.
Boeken, a lifelong smoker whose lung cancer has spread, claimed in his lawsuit that he was the victim of a tobacco industry campaign that portrayed smoking as ”cool” but concealed its dangers.
Boeken would have to file a written consent to the reduction by Aug. 24 or Philip Morris will be granted a retrial ”solely on the issue of punitive damages,” the judge wrote.
”The court finds that the evidence in the record …. is sufficient to support a punitive damages verdict,” the ruling stated.
McCoy, the trial judge, also denied a Philip Morris motion that asked for a new trial on grounds that he erred in refusing to allow the company to present evidence of Boeken’s past criminal convictions in order to challenge the credibility of his claim that he believed smoking was safe.
In the 1970s Boeken was convicted of a felony involving stolen property and another one for possession of a small amount of heroin.
In 1993, he pleaded guilty to a federal charge of aiding and abetting wire fraud involving a telephone boiler room operation that sold oil and gas properties from 1986 to 1988 in Wyoming. Boeken testified for the government in the prosecution of his former boss, pleaded guilty to the felony and was ordered to pay a fine and $50,000 restitution.
McCoy ruled during the trial that Boeken’s criminal record was irrelevant to the tobacco lawsuit and could prejudice the jury.
Boeken said he took up cigarettes at age 13 and smoked at least two packs of Marlboros daily for more than 40 years. His attorney said Boeken was able to kick heroin and alcohol, but renewed his smoking habit after trying to quit several times.
Boeken was diagnosed in 1999 with lung cancer, which spread to his lymph nodes, back and brain. Boeken quit smoking for eight months after being diagnosed but later resumed smoking Marlboros.
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