Tobacco Litigation Wars End With a Whimper

The age of Big Tobacco litigation ended with a whimper earlier this week in a downtown Los Angeles trial court when Mike Piuze, one of Big Tobacco’s mightiest foes, lost $28 billion.

Piuze made his name against Big Tobacco in 2001, when he won $3 billion for Richard Boeken against Philip Morris.  At the time, it was the largest civil verdict ever against a tobacco maker.

The next year, Piuze represented another longtime smoker, Betty Bullock against Philip Morris. This time, he won a staggering $28 BILLION verdict from a Los Angeles jury. The jury said it was awarding $1 million for each of the 28,000 Californians who died from smoking in the past 40 years.–SmokerLawsuit

In the seven intervening years, the appellate battle to end all appellate batles has raged over and around the verdict. Initially, the state appellate court upheld the verdict, saying the extreme reprehensibility of Philip Morris’ conduct justified the enormous punitive damage ration.

In the midst of the battle was Murray Garnick, formerly a partner at Arnold & Porter and now the senior vice president, litigation, and associate general counsel of Altria. (Altria is the new Philip Morris.) And, it seems, it was Garnick whom Philip Morris can thank for the monstrous turnaround. We hope to get his take on this soon.

Among the key developments was outstanding appellate lawyering by a large cast of the nation’s finest, including Mayer Brown’s Andrew Frey, who persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court in the epic Philip Morris v. Williams case that punitive damages could not be allowed to third parties. (Frey’s partner, Steven Shapiro  argued another leg of the case last year, the cert petition of which the Court dismissed as having been improvidently granted.)

Based largely on the Williams decision, the Los Angeles appellate court took up the Bullock case yet again. A new panel unanimously threw out the monstrous punitive award (which had already been reduced by Judge Warren Ettinger to $28 million), and ordered a new trial on punitive damages.

The defense in the retrial was led by one of the nation’s preeminent defense firms, Shook Hardy & Bacon, and its partner Frank Kelly of San Francisco

Jurors were split 9-3, with the three dissenters believing Bullock’s daughter deserved a larger damage award.

Piuze said he liked $28 billion better.


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