Altria, Reynolds, Liggett Lose $20 Million Verdict

Altria Group Inc.’s Philip Morris USA and two other cigarette makers lost a $20 million verdict in Florida state court in Fort Lauderdale.

A six-person jury yesterday found Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Liggett Group responsible for the cancer death of Margot Putney, a Lighthouse Point, Florida, woman who began smoking in about 1953 at the age of 15 and died in 1995.

“She started smoking in an era where cigarette advertising was pervasive, on TV -- in its infancy -- in print media and on radio,” Charles Baumberger, a lawyer representing three Putney children, said yesterday in a phone interview.

The verdict follows a series of losses by the tobacco industry in Florida after a 2006 ruling by the state’s Supreme Court in the “Engle” tobacco class action case. In its decision, the Florida high court decertified a statewide class of addicted smokers and permitted individual suits to go forward.

Jurors reached the verdict after deliberating less than four hours last week and yesterday morning, Baumberger said.

The jury awarded Putney’s family $15 million in compensatory damages. Jurors assigned 35 percent of the responsibility to Putney for her death; 15 percent to Philip Morris; 30 percent to Reynolds; and 20 percent to Liggett. Jurors also assessed $2.5 million in punitive damages each against Philip Morris and Reynolds.

Plaintiff’s Responsibility

The verdict came in the second phase of the month-long trial. In the first phase, jurors took half an hour to decide that Putney had been addicted to cigarettes, according to Baumberger.

In most of the post-Engle cases, the compensatory portion of the award has been reduced by the plaintiffs’ percentage of responsibility as found by the jurors. Baumberger said the issue hasn’t yet been determined in the Putnam case.

In the Engle ruling, the Florida Supreme Court upheld many of the factual findings of a trial jury in the case, including that the cigarette industry conspired to conceal information about the addictiveness of smoking and that cigarettes are defective and unreasonably dangerous products. The Supreme Court ruled that the findings would apply in the post-Engle individual trials, which the companies claim deprives them of their right to a fair trial.

“We believe this verdict should be reversed because the court’s trial plan improperly eliminated any requirement that plaintiff prove that the companies did anything wrong to recover damages,” Murray Garnick, Altria senior vice president and associate general counsel said in a statement.

David Howard, a spokesman for Reynolds American Inc.’s R.J. Reynolds unit said the company is disappointed in the verdict and will appeal. Carrie Bloom, a spokeswoman for Liggett, a unit of Vector Group Ltd., didn’t immediately return a voice-mail message seeking comment yesterday.

Philip Morris is the largest U.S. tobacco company. Reynolds is No. 2.

The case is Putney v. Philip Morris USA, Florida Circuit Court (Fort Lauderdale).