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Driving suit, a quest for justice

Evans views tobacco verdict as mother’s legacy

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By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / December 18, 2010

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By late summer 2001, her cough was heartbreaking. She complained of backaches, and Will Evans could see his mother spitting out blood.

It would be only weeks before he was forced to leave his job to bring her to doctor’s appointments, and it was only months before she died.

But all along, at Marie Evans’s Roxbury home, at her doctor’s office, at her death bed, her only son was by her side. Even while she gave depositions under the attack of lawyers, the last chance to explain her story of how she started smoking as a teenager and why she couldn’t quit, he stayed with her.

“It was fear,’’ Will Evans, now 40, recalled. “It was fear that I would have a short time with my mom.’’

With a groundbreaking, $152 million jury judgment this week that found a tobacco company responsible for her death, Marie Evans became the face of the corruption of tobacco companies a half-century ago: The grim portrait of how one company, Lorillard Inc., the manufacturer of Newport cigarettes, marketed and passed out samples of its new menthol brand to youngsters in black communities, introducing them to a lifetime of addiction.

If Evans was the face behind the verdict, her son had been the driving force, the soul behind the lawsuit, the Harvard Law School graduate who was incensed with his mother’s stories of receiving the cigarette samples at 9 years old and found the resolve to hold the company accountable.

“It was fulfilling her work, doing what I could to support her and honor her,’’ Will Evans said matter-of-factly, with the composure of a lawyer, and the passion of a son who lost his best friend. “I just thought Lorillard set out on a campaign to exploit kids in Orchard Park, and that my mom was that exploitation.’’

Eight years after her death, a Suffolk Superior Court jury ordered Lorillard to pay $50 million in compensatory damages to Marie Evans’s estate, and $81 million in punitive damages, in a landmark decision that was the first to find a tobacco company passed out free cigarettes to youngsters. For his own suffering, Will Evans was awarded $21 million.

Putting the blame on Marie Evans for a lifetime of smoking, Lorillard continues to deny that it passed out cigarettes to youngsters, and said in a statement that it will appeal the jury’s verdict. The case could languish in the courts for years.

But legal technicalities aside, this much has already emerged: a story of how Evans died at age 54 of lung cancer from the cigarettes she received from a tobacco company as a youngster, and how she and her son fought, even in her dying days, to hold that company responsible.

“It’s outrageous that they could do that, and that’s the reason we made the decision to do what we did,’’ Will Evans said.

They had been inseparable since Evans’s days growing up in the Orchard Park housing development, an only son with a single mother.

They played cards and backgammon together. Marie Evans liked to watch tennis, and she brought her son to the Sportsmen’s Tennis Club in Dorchester.

“I was always a Sampras fan, and she was always an Agassi fan,’’ he recalled.

When he started running track, his mother was there, timing him. When he bought his first car, a Volkswagen Jetta, she was there with him negotiating a price. In spring 2002, in her most frail of times, able to eat only a spoonful of soup a day, she helped him pick out a condominium.

She had good taste, too. He still has the curtains she kept in her home.

“I never made a decision in my life without her input,’’ he said, smiling at the revelation.

While he was tending to his studies, a discipline that brought him to the historic Boston Latin School, she was taking night classes at Northeastern University, and eventually earned an associate’s degree. Starting as a telephone operator at Verizon, she rose to the rank of a human resources manager.

“She was an amazing woman,’’ said Michael Weisman, of Davis, Malm & D’Agostine, the lead lawyer in the case. “And they were always a team. When we talked about the case, Marie Evans was the determined one, but it was clear they were a team.’’

It’s one of the reasons Will Evans would not immediately leave Boston to go to college, choosing to get a degree in Latin and history at Tufts University. He taught Latin for a while a Boston Latin School, before moving to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst for master’s degrees in Latin and classical humanities.

He always wanted to be a lawyer, and from there went to Harvard Law School. “I thought you could do a lot of good with a law degree,’’ he said.

He graduated in 1999. Two years later, the heavy coughing started. Then, the blood.

He never liked the smoke from the cigarettes, and his mother had long tried to quit, but this time things seemed dire.

The doctors visits, the worsening condition, they all lead to the frightful diagnoses in December 2001. She had only weeks to live. A few months if she underwent chemotherapy treatment.

“It’s a horrible way to die,’’ Evans said. “My mom was so strong. My mom sensed everyone around her was devastated, and she did her best to comfort me. All I could do was cry.’’

Milton Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com.