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For tobacco giant, one win, one loss

No sooner did the executives at cigarette maker Philip Morris light their victory cigars this week over their courtroom win in Oregon than another court sent them wheezing back to the boardroom.

On Wednesday, the Oregon Court of Appeals vacated a $150 million jury verdict against Philip Morris and ordered a new trial to determine the appropriate award of punitive damages. Then yesterday, Massachusetts' highest court, the Supreme Judicial Court, issued a precedent-setting decision that tobacco companies cannot shield themselves from liability by claiming that smokers acted unreasonably by lighting up when they knew cigarettes were dangerous. Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall wrote for the court:

"If Philip Morris chooses to market an inherently dangerous product, it is at the very least perverse to allow the company to escape liability by showing only that its product was used for its ordinary purpose."

Richard Daynard, director of the Tobacco Control Resource Center, told AP:

"It's an extremely important decision. I think it's the first time that any court in the country has squarely held that as a matter of law, except in extraordinary and unlikely cases, this (personal choice) defense cannot be used."

John F. Banzhaf III, a professor at George Washington University Law School and founder of a national antismoking group, said in The Boston Globe:

"This could blow Big Tobacco out of the water. What the court is saying is that this product is so dangerous that the plaintiff almost never can be said to have used it improperly."

But Paul E. Nemser, an attorney for Philip Morris, told AP that the ruling does not send the company's defenses up in smoke. The ordinary-use defense remains viable, he said, "if there are unusual circumstances making the use of cigarettes unreasonable."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on May 19, 2006 at 04:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

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