A Massachusetts jury today ordered cigarette manufacturer Lorillard Inc. to pay $71 million in damages to a dead smoker's family for allegedly seducing the Boston woman decades ago into smoking Newport cigarettes.
The Suffolk Superior Court jury awarded compensatory damages of $50 million to the estate of Marie Evans and $21 million to her son, William Evans. A hearing on punitive damages in the lawsuit has been scheduled for Thursday. The total amount of damages awarded could rise significantly at that hearing.
The case was the first to claim that Lorillard had decided to target minority communities with samples of Newports, a menthol brand more popular among black communities.
Gregg Perry, a Lorillard spokesman, said the company denied the allegations. He said the company would appeal and was "confident it will prevail."
The jury found that the cigarette company was negligent in passing out samples of cigarettes to Evans and other black children when they were growing up in the Orchard Hill housing development in Boston's Roxbury section -- and in denying for years the health risks associated with cigarettes.
Evans was 54 when she died of lung cancer in 2002 after smoking Newports for more than 40 years. Weeks before she died, she gave a videotaped deposition that was played for jurors in which she said she received the samples when she was as young as 9 years old, and she would trade them for candy. By the time she was 13, she said, she started smoking them.
The 14 jurors told Judge Elizabeth Fahey on Friday that they were deadlocked after four full days of deliberations, but Fahey asked them to continue. They resumed deliberations Monday until they reached a verdict this afternoon.
Evans said in the deposition that pretty white ladies would pass the cigarettes out, making them attractive to youngsters. Other witnesses, including her sister, Leslie Adamson, said that a man in a white truck would pass them out, and he was known as “the cigarette man.”
“They seemed to be there waiting when we got out of school,” Evans said.
"Lorillard respectfully disagrees with the jury’s verdict and denies the plaintiff's claim that the company sampled to children or adults at Orchard Park in the early 1960's. The plaintiff's 50-year-old memories were persuasively contradicted by testimony from several witnesses," Perry, the Lorillard spokesman, said in a statement issued this afternoon.
The verdict was unusual in that, even as tobacco companies’ past marketing practices have been criticized by government agencies and court rulings, jurors are typically reluctant to side with smokers who bring lawsuits against the companies. Jurors typically want to hold the smoker partly responsible, legal experts have said.
The plaintiffs argued that Evans was too young to know any better, and that her strong addiction prevented her from being able to quit.
In the depositions, Evans took some responsibility for never being able to quit, but said she was addicted.
During the trial, lawyers for Lorillard had argued that they never targeted black communities with Newports, and that they never marketed to children.
Acknowledging that cigarettes cause cancer, they said Evans was responsible for her own death because she never quit, not when she had a heart attack at age 37, or when she learned her father had died of lung cancer.
“The risks of cigarette smoking long were common knowledge before Ms. Evans ever lit a cigarette,” attorney Walter Cofer said during the trial.
Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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