Originally, the Massachusetts jury awarded Willie Evans $21 million and his mother’s estate an additional $50 million. Believing the award to be too large, the judge then reduced it to $10 million for Mr. Evans and $25 million for his mother’s estate. In the more recent Supreme Court Case, the Court upheld the reduction. The Court, in a unanimous 82-page opinion, found that the jury correctly concluded that the Lorillard breached its implied warrant of merchantability (which guarantees that a product is safe for ordinary use) due to a design or warning defect.
The Tobacco Products Liability Project, which is based at Northeastern University, took this ruling to mean that any cigarette that causes or sustains a nicotine addiction in consumers is defective. Project director Mark Gottlieb stated on the ruling, “I expect many more cases here to help to address the suffering of victims…needlessly addicted in their youth to a deadly product.”
Even so, the Supreme Court provided some relief to Lorillard. Indeed, the Court reduced the $71 million punitive damages against Lorillard by $36 million. The Court’s reasoning on the reduction: Improper Jury Instructions. In the opinion, the Court stated the award might have been the result of improper jury instructions on the legal principles of “negligent design and marketing” as well as “breach of voluntarily undertaken duty.”
The case will be remanded (sent back to the lower courts) for a new trial to settle the issue of punitive damages. Further, the lower courts have been directed to rethink the issue of whether or not Lorillard violated state consumer protection law. Only after this issue has been ruled on can the issue of punitive damages be considered.
Lorillard, in a statement made by spokesperson Greg Perry, stated, “We are gratified that today’s ruling…ordered a new trial for punitive damages based on errors made during the Evans trial. However, Lorillard disagrees with the affirmation of compensatory damages and the Company is currently considering its options for further review of the ruling.”
We’ll have to wait and see if the Plaintiff lawyers involved can finally keep one of these big tobacco companies on the hook for a large verdict. Historically, they have been very difficult to win against.
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Written by Manish M. Mathur, 3L New England Law | Boston