Michael Pascoe writes:

The track record of individuals suing Big Tobacco is one of an occasional big verdict at the bottom of the legal chain which is then whittled away to nothing as the bottomless pockets of the cancer stick manufacturers work it up through the system. If she wasn’t dead, you could ask Melbourne woman Rolah McCabe about that.

Early this morning, though, the US Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Philip Morris against a $US50 million punitive damages claim against the American tobacco giant. On top of $US5.5 million in actual damages, that amount will now be paid to the widow of Richard Boeken – a Marlborough smoker who was killed by lung cancer four years ago aged 57.

That $US55.5 million had started out as a $US3 billion payment awarded by a Californian jury. The trial judge reduced the punitive element to $100 million and that was halved by a Californian appeals court.

Philip Morris – or its listed parent company Altria Group – won’t be up for $55.5 million for each of its cancer victims, though, as the Boeken case rested on a Californian consumer law. Altria shares initially dipped on the news, but then recovered to finish the session a fraction higher.

A possibly important precedent set in the absence of comment by the Supreme Court, though, is that Philip Morris failed in its argument that such a large punitive damages award to a single plaintiff was “unconstitutionally excessive”.

Maybe, just maybe, the coffin nail purveyors could be in for a bit more pain. On the other hand, the Philip Morris appeal was supported by the US Chamber of Commerce. Look out for some rich lobbying of US governments.

Disclosure: Michael Pascoe’s oldest brother, a smoker, died of cancer aged 57.

Peter Fray

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