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.
For seven years, cigarette companies have repeatedly claimed that the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Engle v. Liggett, which relieved about 8,000 Florida cases of the need to prove general liability or that cigarette smoking causes disease, violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They repeatedly represented to industry analysts and shareholders that these key procedural advantages, which have helped plaintiffs in the trials held to date obtain verdicts against the cigarette manufacturers in two out of every three cases, ultimately would be wiped out as unconstitutional.
The original ruling was based on the long-established notion of res judicata, meaning that the matter had already been judged. The issues that the defendants wanted to re-litigate were already determined in a year-long class action trial in 1999.
Twice now, the cigarette companies have failed to get these important procedural advantages overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court and it appear that, for all intents and purposes, the industry’s uphill legal battle has just become considerably steeper in Florida.
Last November, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review an appeal of another Engle progeny case, Clay v. RJ Reynolds Tobacco, which raised similar Due Process issues.
Today, about seven months after the Florida Supreme Court issued a decision upholding its 2006 Engle ruling in Philip Morris v. Douglas, the industry was again rebuffed by the nation’s highest court and may have exhausted ways of arguing that its Constitutional rights to due process have been denied in Florida.
Mark Gottlieb, Director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute, at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston noted that, “the cigarette companies have two choices left in Florida: either spend the next century continuing to lose around 65-70% of its cases or working to fairly settle them and bring some closure to those 8,000 or so victims who have been waiting more than 15 years for their day in court.”
Public Health Advocacy Institute’s Senior Attorney, Ed Sweda, said,”the tobacco companies’ long-repeated claim that the procedure for trying Engle Progeny cases violates their Due Process rights is now legally dead. The rights of the victims of these companies have been vindicated.”
Florida smokers and their families who are suing tobacco companies won a resounding victory on March 14, 2013 when the Supreme Court of Florida upheld its landmark 2006 ruling in Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc., 945 So.2d 1246 (Fla. 2006).
By a vote of 6 to 1, Florida’s highest court ruled in favor of the plaintiff in Philip Morris USA, Inc., et al. v. Douglas, 2013 Fla. LEXIS 440, upholding a $2.5 million award in the death of Charlotte Douglas and explicitly rejecting industry arguments that the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling seven years ago violated the Due Process rights of the companies.
The Engle case originated as a class action and went to trial before a jury; that jury in Phase I of the trial found the defendant companies strictly liable, in that the cigarettes that the defendants manufactured and placed on the market “were defective in many ways including the fact that the cigarettes contained many carcinogens, nitrosamines, and other deleterious compounds such as carbon monoxide.” While the case ultimately was not allowed to proceed as a class action, the Supreme Court of Florida ruled in 2006 that the members of the class could file their own individual cases (so-called “Engle Progeny” cases) and proceed with those cases relying upon the jury’s Phase I findings of liability, including that smoking caused a variety of specific diseases, that nicotine in cigarettes is addictive, that the tobacco defendants placed cigarettes on the market that were defective and unreasonably dangerous and that all of the Engle defendants were negligent.
The tobacco companies have argued that, despite the fact that they vigorously presented a defense to these claims during the original Engle trial, applying the Phase I findings to the Engle Progeny trials violates their due process rights. Even though the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. relied on this argument unsuccessfully in the Martin case a year ago, (see https://www.phaionline.org/2012/03/26/supreme-court-rejects-key-tobacco-industry-appeal-leaving-massive-liability-with-no-end-in-sight/ ), the companies tried again in Douglas. Commenting on the original Engle trial, the six-member majority in Douglas said: “As illustrated by hundreds of witnesses, thousands of documents and exhibits and tens of thousands of pages of testimony, the Engle defendants had notice and the opportunity to defend against all theories of liability for each of the class’s claims in the yearlong Phase I trial.”
That six-member majority also noted that the tobacco defendants “argue that the Phase I findings establish, at most, that some of their cigarette were defective for some unspecified reason and that they engaged in some, unspecified tortious conduct. This, they claim, requires reversal of the verdict for the plaintiff based on strict liability because the Douglas jury was not instructed (and did not find) a causal connection between a specific defect in the defendants’ cigarettes and the injuries alleged. We disagree and decline the defendants’ invitation to revisit our decision in Engle.”
The majority clearly recognized and emphatically rejected the industry’s fundamental argument. “At its core, the defendants’ due process argument is an attack on our decision in Engle to give the Phase I findings res judicata – as opposed to issue preclusion – effect in class members’ individual damages actions. However, res judicata is the proper term, and we decline the defendants’ invitation to rewrite Engle.”
The decision was bad news for the tobacco industry and its friends on Wall Street. Pro-industry analyst David J. Adelman of Morgan Stanley admitted that the ruling “was even more pro-plaintiff than we expected and will make it more difficult for the industry to successfully defend these claims.”
After the decision was released, Philip Morris USA announced that “it plans to seek further review” of the Douglas decision. That means yet another attempt to persuade the Supreme Court of the United States to consider the industry’s appeal that Engle Progeny trials that result in plaintiff verdicts somehow violate the companies’ due process rights. If the Supreme Court of the United States makes the same decision it made a year ago about an almost identical appeal (Martin), the answer to the tobacco companies will be a final “No.”
-Edward L. Sweda, Senior Attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project
In January 2012, Altria Group, Inc. announced that CEO Michael E. Szymanczyk would retire after the completion of the company’s Annual Shareholders Meeting in Richmond, Virginia on May 17. Mr. Szymancyk worked for the company in various capacities for 23 years. Michael J. Barrington was named to succeed him as Chairman and CEO, while Dave Beran was selected to take over as President and Chief Operating Officer .
While Mr. Szymancyk can take advantage of generous compensation – a pay package valued at $10.2 million for fiscal year 2011 for his work as the CEO of America’s largest cigarette manufacturer, there are many others who are not in a position to enjoy retirement. These include the hundreds of thousands of Americans who annually die prematurely due to smoking-caused diseases, as well as from exposure to secondhand smoke.
As usual, the biggest portion of time at the Annual Shareholders Meeting was devoted to the CEO’s business report on the prior year. During this presentation, Szymanczyk said that Altria had “successfully managed” the external challenges of litigation.
However, during the question-and-answer session, this author noted that, in late March 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court had declined to consider Altria’s appeal in the Campbell case and Reynolds American’s appeal in the Martin case. In its petition for certiorari filed in December 2011, the attorneys for Reynolds American alleged that “in their conduct of Engle Progeny litigation, the Florida state courts are engaged in serial due process violations that threaten the defendants [including Altria] with literally billions of dollars of liability.” The attorneys also warned that if the U.S. Supreme Court did not provide “prompt review,” then “the massive liability imposed on the Engle defendants – which currently stands at over $375 million in adverse judgments – will likewise steadily increase as Engle progeny trials continue with no end in sight.” So, this doomsday scenario outlined by tobacco company attorneys is on track to occur, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the appeal. Therefore, I asked Mr. Szymanczyk: “Why shouldn’t investors and shareholders rely on what tobacco company lawyers said to the U.S. Supreme Court, rather than what you are telling us today?”
In response, Mr. Szymanczyk referred the audience (which included people listening to a webcast of the meeting) to the company’s latest 10-Q report, which contains 32 pages of information on tobacco litigation.
Returning to the theme of retirement, Anne Morrow Donley, a Virginia shareholder, addressed CEO Szymanczyk directly. “With your retirement, I’m sure you look to your legacy. Certainly you and the company have a passion for success. I’m not sure about satisfying your customers’ and their preferences unless they all have a death wish,” she said. “One of every two of your tobacco customers dies from using your tobacco products, often from a debilitating illness. At some point in the future, you and the company may indeed be charged with crimes against humanity – I look forward to that,” she concluded.
After the question-and-answer session, the next order of business was the consideration of a shareholder resolution, submitted by the Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order in Milwaukee. The proposal, which dealt with Altria’s lobbying activities, called for on the Board of Directors to prepare a report that would disclose, on an annual basis:
“Company policy and procedures governing the lobbying of legislators and regulators, including that done on our company’s behalf by trade associations. The disclosure should include both direct and indirect lobbying and grassroots lobbying communications.
A listing of payments (both direct and indirect, including payments to trade associations) used for direct lobbying as well as grassroots lobbying communications, including the amount of the payment and the recipient.
Membership in and payments to any tax-exempt organization that writes and endorses model legislation.
Description of the decision making process and oversight by the management and Board for
Direct and indirect lobbying contribution or expenditure; and
Payment for grassroots lobbying expenditure.”
The key goal of the resolution is transparency. Father Michael Crosby, a Capuchin Franciscan, endorsed the proposal, noting that his order and “eight other members of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility have submitted the resolution that has received the support of one of the biggest institutional advisor groups in the United States. ISS, Institutional Shareholder Services. When they analyzed what we are asking for, and what the company’s response is, they said that it was not adequate enough to support the company, so they are basically supporting us.”
Father Crosby continued, contending that Altria has a “culture of connivance.” Citing the election battle in California over Proposition 29, a proposition would, for the first time in 14 years, raise the state cigarette excise tax by $1 per pack to help fund cancer research. Father Crosby noted that Altria “has contributed two thirds of the $40 million trying to undermine” support for the proposition. On the “main web site of this group in California that is against” Proposition 29, it says it is supported by small business. “There is no mention that two thirds of all the money going into this is from a big business like” Altria, Father Crosby said. [Initial reports on the June 5, 2012 vote in California show a very narrow defeat for the proposition, by a margin of 50.8% against versus 49.2% in favor].
Father Crosby also condemned Altria’s support for the American Legislative Exchange Council, noting that the company has a seat on ALEC’s board of directors. “It isn’t democracy. It’s corpocracy, and it’s hypocrisy when there is this connivance,” Father Crosby told the audience.
In seconding the proposal, this author noted that “this modest shareholder proposal comes at a time of unprecedented public concern and pushback about the excessively pervasive and powerful influence that corporations have in the American political system. In the wake of the January 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case,… in which right-wing judicial activism has transformed the landscape of the American electoral process, certainly this resolution addresses a subject of utmost importance.”
I also noted that Altria had donated $50,000 to ALEC’s annual meeting for drafting legislation for Florida and other states that adopted the so-called “Stand Your Ground” legislation which has garnered international attention after the February 2012 fatal shooting of an unarmed 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin. “ Altria’s association with ALEC should have been disclosed to shareholders” long before now, I concluded.
In its opposition to the proposal, Altria claimed that it “provides extensive information on its website describing its public policy activities” and that the “additional report sought by this proposal is not necessary and would not provide meaningful additional insight into the Company’s activities in this area.”
The proposal was defeated with a preliminary result of 20.5% of shares in favor, with 79.5% of shares opposed.
So, after the meeting, Michael Szymanczyk did indeed retire as Altria’s CEO. His successor is expected to proceed with business as usual – as deadly as that business will be for untold millions of people.
Three key issues were taken up at the 2012 Reynolds American Inc. (RAI) Annual Shareholders Meeting in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on May 3rd.
First, the issue drawing the most public attention was the company’s dealings with groups representing farm workers who toil under dangerous conditions and provide the tobacco that brings prosperity to the company and its key executives. At least 20 individuals who attended the meeting dominated the question-and-answer session, urging the company to meet directly with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) after many years of failing to achieve such a meeting. Reynolds American CEO Daniel M. Delen publicly pledged that he would be willing to participate in such a meeting. Dozens of protestors outside the building underscored the message of the supporters of the human rights of tobacco farm workers.
A second issue was contained in the shareholder resolution that called on RAI to establish a special ethics committee to examine the company’s marketing practices. The purpose of this special committee is “to ensure shareholders that its products and product promotions, as far as is possible, not undermine efforts of governments at any level to adopt laws and practices that will free Americans from the negative consequences of use of our tobacco products.”
In addition to commenting on the text of the resolution, Father Michael Crosby denounced RAI’s heavy-handed campaign to oppose California’s Proposition 29, which would raise that state’s cigarette excise tax by $1 per pack and increase taxes on cigars and pipe tobacco from 31.73 percent to 54.89 percent. If passed by the voters, the proposal would raise about $735 million annually, most of which would go toward cancer research.
Fr. Crosby also cited the company’s support of the right-wing political organization ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, whose stealth activities have come under increased scrutiny following public disclosures of ALEC’s drafting of and advocacy for Florida “Stand Your Ground” law and several states’ anti-immigrant legislation.
The shareholder resolution was defeated, according to the preliminary tally reported at the meeting, with 6.4 million shares in favor, 418 million shares opposed and 6.3 shares abstaining.
The third key issue was litigation, specifically RAI’s “litigation progress” – or lack thereof – in dealing with the Engle Progeny cases in Florida. During the business presentation by Mr. Delen, RAI’s CEO stated that, since 2010, RAI had been “successful” in two-thirds of the Engle Progeny trials. Such “successes” included not only defense verdicts but also – for the first time publicy stated in this author’s memory at any tobacco company’s shareholders meeting – mistrials (such as when a jury is deadlocked without being able to reach a verdict).
In 2009, a Florida jury awarded $3.3 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages against Reynolds American in a case involving the death of Benny Ray Martin, the husband of Mathilde Martin. Her case is one of thousands of “Engle Progeny” lawsuits in Florida, cases that followed the landmark 2006 ruling by the Florida Supreme court in Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc., 945 So. 2d 1246 (Fla. 2006). After losing on appeal at every stage in the Florida’s state court system, RAI filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States.
In arguing in December 2011 that its petition for a writ of certiorari should be granted, Reynolds’ attorneys (Paul D. Clement of Bancroft PLLC, Gregory G. Katsas of Jones Day and Eric E. Murphy of Jones Day) claimed that in “their conduct of Engle progeny litigation, the Florida state courts are engaged in serial due-process violations that threaten the defendants with literally billions of dollars of liability.” (emphasis added) Moreover, “the massive liability imposed on the Engle defendants – which currently stands at over $375 million in adverse judgments – will… steadily increase as Engle progeny trials continue with no end in sight.” (emphasis added).
RAI’s attorneys’ description of doomsday for the company became reality on March 26, 2012 when the Supreme Court announced that it would not consider RAI’s appeal in the Martin case. As I described at the time, “At long last, Reynolds American and the other major tobacco companies will be held accountable for their massive and reprehensible misconduct that harmed thousands of Florida smokers. As Reynolds’ own lawyers have concluded, denial of its cert petition is a very big deal indeed.”
Citing the question I asked at the 2011 Reynolds American Shareholders Meeting about the Martin case, the response I received from Mark Holton, RAI’s Executive Vice President and General Counsel, that he was “confident that the Engle process violates due process” and that the company’s legal arguments were strong and would ultimately prevail, and the fact that on March 26, 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider RAI’s appeal of the $28 million verdict, this RAI shareholder from Massachusetts asked the following question:
“Given how Mr. Holton got it wrong last year about this important case, why shouldn’t investors and shareholders be skeptical when they hear pronouncements by Reynolds American management about tobacco litigation?”
In response, Mr. Holton acknowledged what the Supreme Court had done regarding the Martin case, but cited what he called “encouraging” developments with two appeals of plaintiff verdicts in the state court system in Florida. This included a March 30th ruling by Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal affirming a $2.5 million wrongful death verdict against Reynolds American and Philip Morris USA. In that appeal of the Douglas case, the Court of Appeal also certified the following question to the Supreme Court of Florida: “Does accepting as res judicata the eight Phase I findings approved in Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc., 945 So. 2d 1246 (Fla. 2006) violate the tobacco companies’ due process rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution?”
Mr. Holton notably did not address the doomsday scenario outlined by his company’s attorneys who filed the writ for certiorari. So, in a span of just five months, this RAI shareholder received from the company diametrically polar opposite predictions concerning the future of tobacco litigation, depending on which side of the Reynolds American corporate mouth was talking.
The company had appealed a $28.3 million judgment against Reynolds for the death of Benny Ray Martin, the husband of Mathilde Martin. Her case is one of thousands of “Engle Progeny” lawsuits in Florida, cases that followed the landmark 2006 ruling by the Florida Supreme court in Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc., 945 So. 2d 1246 (Fla. 2006).
Edward L. Sweda, Jr., Senior Attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project (a project of the Public Health Advocacy Institute based at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston) was ecstatic to learn of the denial of Reynolds’ cert petition. “At long last, Reynolds and the other major tobacco companies will be held accountable for their massive and reprehensible misconduct that harmed thousands of Florida smokers. As Reynolds’ own lawyers have concluded, denial of its cert petition is a very big deal indeed,” Sweda said.
In arguing in December 2011 that its petition should be granted, Reynolds’ attorneys (Paul D. Clement of Bancroft PLLC, Gregory G. Katsas of Jones Day and Eric E. Murphy of Jones Day) claimed that in “their conduct of Engle progeny litigation, the Florida state courts are engaged in serial due-process violations that threaten the defendants with literally billions of dollars of liability.” (emphasis added) Moreover, “the massive liability imposed on the Engle defendants – which currently stands at over $375 million in adverse judgments – will… steadily increase as Engle progeny trials continue with no end in sight.” (emphasis added).
TPLP Director, Mark Gottlieb, noted that, “while cigarette companies’ statements are often thought to be disingenuous, in the case of Reynold’s Petition to the Court, it is absolutely true that the Engle cases create ‘massive liability’ with ‘no end in sight.'” Gottlieb added: “But the industry’s liability is not limited to these cases. Verdicts like the Evans case in Boston ($81 million) and Schwarz in Oregon ($25 million) can and should become more commonplace beyond the Sunshine State.”
Currently, of the 61 Engle Progeny cases that have reached a verdict (not counting mistrials), 41 have been plaintiff verdicts (one of which was overturned on appeal on statute of limitations grounds and is being further appealed) and 20 have been defense verdicts, with thousands of cases awaiting trial. “Today is a great day for thousands of Florida residents who turned to the American judicial system to seek justice,” Sweda concluded.
A Florida state jury today assessed $25 million in punitive damages against Lorillard Tobacco Co. for its reprehensible misconduct involving the lung cancer death of Coleman Alexander. His widow Dorothy, a retired nurse who brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the company, was awarded $20 million in compensatory damages last week.
Edward L. Sweda, Jr., Senior Attorney for the Public Health Advocacy Institute (PHAI) which is based at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, was delighted by the jury’s verdict. “This jury was justifiably outraged by the reprehensible behavior of Lorillard, whose actions were found to be a legal cause of Mr. Alexander’s death from lung cancer,” Sweda said. “The award is absolutely appropriate given the facts of what Lorillard has done,” he added.
Mark Gottlieb, who directs PHAI, noted that, “the liability shadow hanging over the cigarette industry won’t go away with thousands of more cases lined up for trial in Florida and beyond.”
Coleman Alexander died in 1995 from small cell lung cancer after having smoked for more than 40 years. One of the brands he had smoked, Kent, was manufactured by Lorillard. The jury last week found that Mr. Alexander was addicted to cigarettes containing nicotine and that his addiction was a legal cause of his death.
Since February 2009, verdicts (not counting mistrials) in Engle Progeny trials in Florida have been 41 for plaintiffs and 19 for the tobacco companies, for a winning percentage for the plaintiffs of 68.3%. One of those 41 plaintiff verdicts has been overturned on appeal.
Dorothy Alexander is represented by Alex Alvarez of the Alvarez Law Firm, by Gary Paige of the Paige Law Firm and by Jordan Chaikin of Parker Waichman LLP. The case is The Estate of Coleman Alexander v. Lorillard Tobacco Co., case number 2007-046830-CA-01.
The Public Health Advocacy Institute (PHAI) is based at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, MA. PHAI is an independent federally recognized non-profit charity.
RICHMOND, VA. – Just eight days before the Altria Group, Inc. 2011 Annual Shareholders Meeting in this historic city, Altria Group’s former Chief Executive Officer, Louis Camilleri, complicated matters for his successor. At the Philip Morris International Annual Shareholders Meeting in New York City on May 11, 2011, Camilleri answered a question from a shareholder who is also a nurse who has treated many smokers with serious diseases. While admitting that smoking is addictive, Camilleri added the comment that “it is not that hard to quit” using tobacco products. That comment made international headlines after the Associated Press reported it.
So, when Altria Group’s Szymanczyk gave management’s report at the meeting in Richmond on May 19th, he specifically, on page 10 of his prepared remarksstated: “Because tobacco use is addictive and it can be very difficult to quit, our tobacco companies help connect adult tobacco consumers who have decided to quit with cessation information from public health authorities.”
During the question and answer session, shareholder Rev. Michael Crosby of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility and I both pressed Szymanczyk to state whether, as Altria Group’s CEO, he disagreed with Camilleri’s comment and, if so, why. Refusing to do so, he stated that “I would simply say that what I said is on our website. There is nothing new here.” The juxtaposition between the public statements of two tobacco executives just six days apart was the central focus of the Richmond Times-Dispatch article on the meeting.
I also pressed Szymanczyk on the issue of the ongoing Engle Progeny trials taking place in Florida. Noting that 30 out of 43 (now, as this report is written, 32 out of 46) such trials resulting in verdicts have seen jurors return plaintiff verdicts, I asked whether Altria Group, for the sake of its shareholders, would abandon its no-settlement policy regarding the thousands of Engle Progeny cases remaining throughout Florida. His response was simply to refer shareholders to the company’s 10Q form, which restates its standard policy of refusing to settle these cases.
Virginia shareholder Anne Morrow Donley, citing studies from March 2011 which showed that a fetus subjected to secondhand smoke is at a higher risk of stillbirth, lower birth weight and lower birth length , asked Szymanczyk whether he would publicly advise smokers not to smoke around women of child-bearing age. His response was to acknowledge that pregnant women should not be exposed to secondhand smoke, but he refused to broaden that recommendation to include women of child-bearing age.
Cathy Rowan, representing shareholder Trinity Group, noted Altria Group’s willingness to address concerns about implementing internally agreed upon code upholding the human rights of tobacco farm workers and about ensuring that the company’s suppliers are enforcing those rules. Altria Group’s cooperation with shareholders following a 2009 vote of shareholders where 25% supported a resolution to protect the human rights of farm workers stands in contrast to the rigid opposition by the management of Reynolds American, Inc. to similarly worded resolutions.
In his prepared remarks, Szymanczyk also bragged about Altria Group’s donations to various charitable and civic organizations, including the Boys and Girls Clubs, 4H, as well as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Kennedy center and the National gallery of Art. He boasted that “Altria made nearly $50 million in cash and in-kind corporate contributions to non-profit organizations” in 2010, without noting that the $50 million figure represented just 0.205% of the company’s net revenues ($24.363 billion) in 2010.
A shareholder resolution was offered, calling on the Board of Directors to move “to ensure that Altria stops the production of any of its tobacco products with characterizing flavoring added, as well as their distribution and marketing, unless and until it can be proven by independent and evidence-based research that such added characterizing flavors do not contribute significantly to youth initiation of tobacco use.” That resolution was defeated, with 97.5% of shares voting NO, with 2.5% voting YES.
At a Richmond restaurant after the 2011 Altria Group, Inc. Annual Shareholders Meeting. From left to right: Anne Morrow Donley, Rev. Michael Crosby, Cathy Rowan and Edward L. Sweda, Jr.
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — On Thursday, May 5, 2011, I made my way to this historic city via the Winston-Salem Express. Friday morning at 9:00 A.M. sharp was the scheduled start of the 2011 Annual Meeting of Shareholders of tobacco giant Reynolds American, Inc. (RAI).
Beautiful sunny skies greeted everyone in Winston-Salem on Friday morning. Having just walked into the lair, i.e. RAI’s corporate headquarters, I noticed an intriguing sign by the registration desk: “As a courtesy to non-smoking guests, the Annual Meeting will be a non-smoking event.” Not in any way a matter of health but, rather, a “courtesy.”
A Corporate Shift?
The 2011 Annual Shareholders Meeting of Reynolds American, Inc. (RAI) took place on a day when Daniel Delen, who took over as chief executive and president of the company in March, made what was billed as a major pronouncement. Noting the findings of a major study entitled “A State of Fear: Human Rights Abuses in North Carolina’s Tobacco Industry,” by Oxfam America and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO (FLOC) of the conditions under which tobacco farm workers in North Carolina do their work in the fields, Mr. Delen proposed that a multi-party council be formed to address these labor issues. Additionally, he publicly pledged to use an independent, third-party monitor to analyze the issue of the conditions under which these workers labor at U.S.-based farms that supply essential product to RAI.
A front-page article in the May 7, 2011 edition of the Winston-Salem Journal, entitled “Reynolds American Takes Step,” quoted Rev. Michael Crosby of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility: “I see a glimmer of hope on an issue we have been raising for a number of years. For your willingness to participate with stakeholders, I sprinkle holy water on you. Yet, because these discussions are going on at the highest levels with Altria and Philip Morris International, I would urge you to take the same level here.”
Mr. Delen’s promises, which will be put to the test in the upcoming weeks and months, stand in contrast to the public position of previous C.E.O. Susan Ivey, who insisted that RAI had no responsibility to take steps to improve working conditions of farm workers who labor under often unsafe working conditions on farms run by Reynolds’ suppliers.
Response to Litigation – More of the Same
However, on the litigation front, RAI management is as rigid as ever. During the question and answer session, to which RAI allotted all of 25 minutes – fully ten minutes more than at the 2010 Annual Shareholders Meeting – I addressed the major legal problems that R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. is facing in the Engle Progeny litigation in Florida. Shareholders are allowed up to two minutes to ask a question (a video board at the front of the meeting room featured a large numeric countdown from “2:00” once a shareholder began to speak); I mentioned that since February 2009, there have been 43 Engle Progeny trials that have reached a verdict and that 30 out of those 43 have been plaintiff verdicts. Just a week before the shareholders meeting, a jury in Jacksonville, where a disproportionately large number of the remaining 8,000 to 9,000 lawsuits yet to be tried are located, hit RAI with a $17 million punitive damages award. Furthermore, the company is appealing its multi-million dollar loss in the Martin case and must prevail in an uphill climb to convince the Florida Supreme Court to reverse its own 2006 landmark ruling in the Engle class-action case.
I concluded my remarks by asking whether the company, for the good of its shareholders, would move away from its current policy of refusing to settle these Engle Progeny cases.
Mark Holton, RAI’s Executive Vice President and General Counsel, responded by reiterating the company’s stated opposition to settling any of these cases and said that he was “confident that the Engle process violates due process” and that the company’s legal arguments are strong and would ultimately prevail. Though no follow-up questions are allowed, I commented that “the risk [for the company] is there.”
Two important shareholder resolutions called on the company to address concerns regarding tobacco flavoring and to create human rights protocols for the company and its suppliers.
Noting that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has found that the smoking of flavored cigarettes is more popular among youth than among adults, the proponents offered this resolution “that, because youth initiation of tobacco products is influenced by the flavoring, shareholders request that, within six months of Reynolds American Inc.’s annual meeting, the Board of Directors move to ensure that RAI stops the production of any of its tobacco products with such flavoring added, as well as their distribution and their marketing, unless and until it can be proven by independent and evidence-based research that such added flavors do not contribute to youth initiation of tobacco use.” Father Michael Crosby introduced the resolution while Anne Morrow Donley of Virginia seconded it (their remarks were limited to two minutes each).
RAI management, of course, opposed the resolution, falling back on the contention that the “flavorings utilized on our operating companies’ tobacco products are legally permitted.” The resolution was defeated with 3 million shares being voted “Yes” with 397 million “No.”
A major threat to the health of tobacco farm workers is Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS), which occurs when the skin absorbs nicotine after touching the tobacco plants. Another significant concern regarding Reynolds American, Inc. is that it receives leaf from Malawi, a country in which child labor in tobacco fields takes place.
This resolution stated that “shareholders request Reynolds American Tobacco Inc. Board of Directors to commit itself to create effective procedures to implement protocols ensuring basic worker rights consistent with internationally agreed-upon human rights conventions in the countries which supply its tobacco and to find ways to ensure, through truly independent monitoring, that its varied suppliers are enforcing these protocols as well as all other pertinent laws of the nations in which its suppliers operate.”
Father Crosby introduced the resolution while I seconded it. RAI’s opposition to this resolution attempted to pass off any responsibility on this issue onto the already overburdened regulatory apparatus of state and federal governments in the United States. Management also claimed that “RAI and its operating companies strive to comply with all laws and regulations.” In my allotted two minutes, I noted that, as an individual, I do not “strive to comply with laws, I comply with laws.” I noted that, while there would be serious consequences for me if I failed to comply with laws, there seem to be no consequences for RAI or its suppliers failing to comply with basic laws and regulations governing worker health and safety.
The resolution was defeated, having received 39 million shares voting “Yes”, with 361 million “No.”
Outside the auditorium where the meeting took place, RAI provided shareholders with copies of the company’s publications, one of which is a 33-page brochure entitled “Our Continuing Commitment,” the 2010 Corporate Social responsibility Report. On page 23 of the report, RAI informs its shareholders that “[d]uring the past four years, the American Snuff Co. Charitable Trust has contributed $40,000 to a campaign by Methodist Healthcare Foundation to build a 30-patient hospice residence for terminally ill people of all ages…” ,
Smoke-free facilities and public places
I was encouraged to see signs such as this one on the front door of the hotel in which I was staying in Winston-Salem.
and this one at a public park in Greensboro
As mentioned above, the shareholders meeting was entirely smoke-free.
To cap off my trip to North Carolina, on Friday night I attended a South Atlantic League baseball game between the Hickory Crawdads and the host Greensboro Grasshoppers. The game, won by Hickory 7-2, was played at NewBridge Bank Park, a smoke-free park.
Contact: Edward L. Sweda, Jr. or Mark Gottlieb 617-373-8462 or 617-373-2026
A Jacksonville, Florida jury this week assessed $34 million in punitive damages against tobacco giants Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. for their reprehensible misconduct in the case of Andy Allen v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., et al. This award followed a compensatory damages award of $6 million for the family of Patricia Allen, who died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) after having smoked for 36 years. Ms. Allen, who was born in 1948, started smoking in high school at a time when the tobacco companies were targeting teenage girls, according to Allen family attorney Keith Mitnick of Morgan & Morgan.
Edward L. Sweda, Jr., senior Attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project (TPLP), a project of the Public Health Advocacy Institute, based at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, was delighted with the jury’s verdict. Noting that the jury “expressed appropriate and justifiable outrage at the reprehensible misconduct of these tobacco companies,” Sweda applauded the verdict, which was the third highest among the 30 plaintiff verdicts of the 43 Engle Progeny trials that have reached a verdict since February 2009.
It is also significant that this huge plaintiff victory occurred in Jacksonville, since approximately 4000 Engle Progeny cases are pending in state and federal court in Jacksonville.
TPLP Executive Director Mark Gottlieb said, “these trials stemming from the Engle class action suit of the 1990s disrupt business as usual for cigarette companies as juries continually find them liable at an astaunding rate.”