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Court Tosses Out $7.1 Million Verdict In Tobacco Case

Warning label on cigarettes
Wikimedia Commons
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

In a case stemming from the death of a woman who smoked for more than 30 years, a South Florida appeals court Wednesday overturned a $7.1 million verdict against cigarette maker Philip Morris USA and ordered a new trial. 

Michael Gentile filed the wrongful-death lawsuit on May 12, 2015 against Philip Morris after his wife, Brenda, died of lung cancer following decades of smoking at least a pack of cigarettes a day, the ruling by a three-judge panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal said. Brenda Gentile primarily smoked Virginia Slims, made by Philip Morris.

The lawsuit raised claims of strict liability, negligence and fraud, which related to allegations that the cigarette maker concealed the harm of smoking. A jury sided with Gentile and awarded $7.1 million in compensatory damages. But Philip Morris argued that Gentile had not proven fraud occurred in the 12 years before the lawsuit was filed, as is required by state law.

The appeals court agreed, pointing to admissions by Philip Morris as early as 1999 that cigarettes were highly addictive and that smokers should not assume “light” and “ultra-light” brands, such as the cigarettes smoked by Brenda Gentile, were safe.

“PM (Philip Morris) argues that the court improperly denied its motion for directed verdict on its fraud-based claims because plaintiff (Gentile) failed to prove PM made a fraudulent statement or omission about the safety of its light or low-tar cigarettes after May 12, 2003,” said the seven-page ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Dorian Damoorgian and joined by Chief Judge Spencer Levine and Jeffrey Kuntz. “PM maintains that it expressly disclaimed any misrepresentation that light or low-tar cigarettes were safer or less addictive than its full-flavored cigarettes prior to the (12-year) repose period. We agree.”