Lawsuits Seek $37.5 Million From Tobacco Companies In Death Of 2 Oregonians

In 1998, four cigarette companies signed an historic settlement with 45 states to compensate for health care costs for Medicaid patients who developed lung cancer and other illnesses after using tobacco. Oregon has collected nearly $2 billion in payouts since then, including about $150 million for Medicaid, mental health, physical education and bond and administrative fees over the 2021 to 2023 budget cycle.

Big Tobacco has also paid billions in damages in civil lawsuits.

In the biggest verdict to date, a jury in Miami last July awarded $145 billion in a class action lawsuit brought by Florida smokers and their families.

Big verdicts have also been decided in Oregon: In 1999, a jury ordered Philip Morris to pay $81 million to the family of Jesse Williams for lying about the risks of smoking. A retired Portland Public School janitor, Williams died in 1997 after smoking Marlboros for more than four decades. 

But not all cases have ended with big verdicts. Earlier this year, a Multnomah County Circuit Court jury heard PDF icona case brought by an Oregon woman, Patricia Rickman, who accused RJ Reynolds of negligence in its sale of Camel cigarettes, her favorite brand. She was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2018 and sought $6 million.

The jury awarded her nothing: It said RJ Reynolds did not try to deceive her about the risk of smoking.

But that decision has not dissuaded other Oregonians from suing. In recent weeks, two families have filed separate complaints in Multnomah County Circuit Court against Philip Morris USA, RJ Reynolds and other companies on the behalf of two dead smokers: Derrick Lynch and Susan Popma. Both died in 2018 from smoking-related illnesses.

Each suit seeks $18.8 million in damages.

Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds did not respond to a request for comment about the cases, and so far none of the defendants has filed a response.

PDF iconThe Lynch complaint says he smoked from 1982 starting with Winstons, made by RJ Reynolds. He switched to Marlboros, made by Philip Morris, then smoked Camels until a year before he died. Popma, who took up cigarettes in 1991, smoked Marlboros, Camels and then Natural American Spirit cigarettes, made by Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co. It, too, is named in the PDF iconPopma suit.

Both complaints, which also name law firms for the tobacco companies and stores that sold the cigarettes, accuse the tobacco companies of “purposefully and intentionally” designing cigarettes to be highly addictive.

“They added ingredients such as ammonia and diammonium-phosphate to ‘free base’ nicotine and manipulated levels of nicotine and pH in smoke to make cigarettes more addictive, better tasting and easier to inhale,” the suits say. “They also deliberately manipulated and/or added compounds in cigarettes such as arsenic, polonium-210, methane, methanol, carbon monoxide, nitrosamines, butane, formaldehyde, tar, carcinogens and other deadly and poisonous compounds to cigarettes.”

The complaints accuse the tobacco companies of a “civil conspiracy” to deceive the public about the dangers of smoking filtered, low tar or “light” cigarettes. They say lawyers helped conceal their conspiracy, accusing the companies of fraud, product liability and negligence.

Two lawyers are behind both suits -- Jane Paulson in Portland and Alex Alvarez in Miami. Alvarez represented defendants in the Florida class action suit. A third lawyer, Robert Kelley, based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is also representing Popma. His website says he won the biggest individual verdict against a tobacco company -- $300 million against Philip Morris in 2009.

The Rickman case, decided in RJ Reynolds’ favor, was brought by lawyer James Coon in Portland and Alvarez.

You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected] or on Twitter @LynnePDX.

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