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Florida jury holds Philip Morris USA accountable for its actions in Federal Court

September 25th, 2014

On September 16, 2014, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida returned a verdict of $27,010,000.14 against Philip Morris USA on behalf of Judith Berger, who started smoking in 1958 at the age of 14.  Clearly outraged by evidence of Philip Morris’ conduct in targeting children, the jury awarded over $20 million in punitive damages and added fourteen cents to the total.  Judith Berger, as did her now-deceased twin sister, developed severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) from smoking.

Kenny Byrd, the lead trial counsel for Lieff Cabraser, which represented the plaintiff, was delighted with the verdict.  “We are pleased that the jury held Philip Morris accountable for their calculated choice to target children, such as Mrs. Berger, to take up smoking.  The addition of the 14 cents is just as meaningful as the $20 million before it.  The jury understood our society should protect 14-year-olds, not target them for profits as the cigarette industry does.”

One of the pieces of evidence presented to the jury was a Philip Morris memo that said “today’s teenager is tomorrow’s regular customer.”

This case in federal court is one of thousands of “Engle Progeny” lawsuits that were filed following the Supreme Court of Florida’s 2006 ruling in Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc., 945 So. 2d 1246 (Fla. 2006).  The trials in these lawsuits, which began in February 2009, have resulted in plaintiff verdicts in approximately two-thirds of the 120 such trials that have reached a jury verdict.  While most of these cases are being tried it state court, it is encouraging to see plaintiff victories occurring in federal court as well.

Not surprisingly, Philip Morris relied on its well-worn “personal responsibility” defense as its main attempt to evade accountability.  Plaintiff co-counsel Lance Oliver of Motley Rice LLC, commented that, at trial, “Philip Morris attempted to lay all the blame on Mrs. Berger for choices she made as a kid.  Thankfully, the jury saw through this and held Philip Morris accountable for its choices.”

When juries learn the details of outrageous tobacco industry behavior, the end result will be more verdicts – including punitive damages – comparable in size and scope as the one in this case.  After the verdict, Mrs. Berger reacted as follows: “I am so grateful that the jury held Philip Morris accountable for its actions over the past 60 years.  Before this lawsuit, I had no idea that the tobacco industry deliberately designed cigarettes to make them addictive and then conspired to lie to the public about their deadly effects.  I fought this battle in part for my twin sister Josephine – may she rest in peace – who died from the same disease that will take my life in the next few years.  I encourage anyone whose rights are violated by Philip Morris – or any corporation – to stand up, fight for justice and hold them accountable for their actions.”

Achieving justice and holding powerful corporations accountable for their wrongdoing: that’s what the Engle Progeny litigation is all about.

-Ed Sweda

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