Individual lawsuits, which had been unsuccessful for more than four decades, have scored impressive recent wins. In 2005, a jury found Philip Morris liable for $17.1 billion in punitive damages. Other juries in cases on behalf of individuals have awarded $3 billion (2001 Boeken trial, Los Angeles, reduced by trial judge to $105 million), $150 million (2002 Schwartz trial, Portland, Oregon, reduced by the trial judge to $100 million), and $28 billion (2002 Bullock trial, Los Angeles, reduced by the trial judge to $28 million).
Class actions have also been important in the American tobacco litigation scene. Although some courts have dismissed these actions on the basis that the smokers’ claims are too diverse, some cases have been allowed to proceed.
A Florida case, Broin, on behalf of non-smoking flight attendants exposed to environmental tobacco smoke, was settled in October 1997 in exchange for a $300 million fund to research the diagnosis and treatment of diseases caused by environmental tobacco smoke, as well as an agreement on the procedures to simplify and facilitate future trials.
In a Louisiana case, on behalf of smokers in that state, the plaintiffs were awarded $590 million over 10 years for a smoking cessation program, though they were denied billions of dollars over 25 years for a medical monitoring program.
Those claiming to be members of the Broin class of flight attendants injured by environmental tobacco smoke have filed more than 3,000 lawsuits. In one such case, a jury awarded $5.5 million to a flight attendant in 2002. The trial court reduced the award to $500,000. In addition to the flight attendants’ class action, there have been other successful environmental tobacco cases in the United States. In October 1997, an asthmatic corrections officer who became seriously ill from breathing environmental tobacco smoke at work was awarded $300,000.
Third party reimbursement cases, modeled on the successful state Medicaid reimbursement cases, also continue to be filed. Health insurers, including Blue Cross Blue Shield plans and health and welfare funds managed by unions, have cases pending for reimbursement of benefits paid to smoking victims. In one such case, Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, New York State’s largest health insurer, was awarded a $17.8 million verdict in 2001. In addition, many Native American tribes have recently sued the industry of the cost of treating the high incidence of diseases among their members caused by tobacco.
The federal government filed a lawsuit to recover the tobacco related expenses of its Medicare, veterans, and military health programs, as well as to require the industry to change its behavior and to disgorge profits received as a result of its violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. The lawsuit proceeded under the government’s RICO claims, and it went to trial in 2004. The suit originally sought $280 billion in penalties under RICO, but that amount has been reduced to $14 billion. To date, courts have differed in their responses to third party cases, with some opining that the injury is too indirect to be compensable and others approving the cases as a direct and efficient way to make cigarette companies pay for the harm they cause.