May 15 (Bloomberg) -- Altria Group Inc., Reynolds American Inc. and Lorillard Inc. defeated most of the claims in 600 lawsuits brought by West Virginia residents seeking damages for death and injury caused by smoking.
A jury in state court in Charleston today ruled in the cigarette makers’ favor on all but one question in the trial, which began April 22, according to an online feed from Courtroom View Network.
The jurors, who deliberated part of yesterday and today, found against the smokers on claims of failure to warn, negligence, design defect, breach of warranty and fraudulent concealment. The jurors found for the plaintiffs on a question related to their sale of ventilated filter cigarettes.
The verdict resolves most of the common liability questions in a group of suits that were consolidated for trial purposes in 2000. An earlier attempt to try the case ended in a mistrial in 2011 after two weeks. If the plaintiffs had won, jurors would have been asked to determine whether the companies engaged in conduct that would support an award of punitive damages.
Individual trials may be held in the cases based on claims the companies should have provided instructions for the use of ventilated filtered cigarettes, Circuit Judge Arthur Recht told lawyers today.
“Today’s decision may allow some individual plaintiffs to move forward with their individual cases,” Murray Garnick, Altria senior vice president and associate general counsel, said in a statement today. “However, only those individuals who smoked ventilated filter cigarettes between 1964 and 1969 may pursue claims and those individuals will be required to show a link between the failure to instruct and their injuries.”
Garnick said the Richmond, Virginia-based company has strong defenses to the claim.
Kenneth McClain, who represents the West Virginia smokers, didn’t immediately return a phone message seeking comment on the verdict.
Bryan Hatchell, a spokesman for Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based Reynolds American, and Ronald Milstein, Greensboro, North Carolina-based Lorillard’s general counsel, also didn’t immediately return calls seeking comment.
The companies tried to avoid the trial by claiming the two-phase plan was unworkable and that it violated their right to a fair trial. West Virginia’s Supreme Court found in 2005 that the plan didn’t violate the Constitution, clearing the way for the claims to go forward.
The West Virginia litigation is one of the biggest remaining concentrations of cigarette injury claims in the U.S.
Thousands of individual claims are pending in Florida courts in the wake of the 2006 “Engle” ruling by that state’s highest court, which made it easier to sue for tobacco-related injuries.
The case is In Re Tobacco Litigation (Individual Personal Injury Cases), 00-C-5000, West Virginia Circuit Court, Kanawha County (Charleston).
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