$17.7 Million Dollar Verdict for Spouse of Lung Cancer Victim

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A Los Angeles jury has rendered a $17.736 million dollar verdict for the spouse of a former smoker who died of lung cancer.

The jury was superb in their commitment to do the right thing based on the evidence and law.

On July 30, 2014 a jury in Los Angeles County Superior Court returned a verdict in favor of Mrs. Tajie Major, the widow of retired Captain William Major, U.S. Navy, against Lorillard Tobacco Co. for $17.736 M (Tajie Major vs. Lorillard Tobacco Co., Case No. BC473650). Plaintiff’s counsels, Gil Purcell and Jason Rose of Novato, CA-based Brayton Purcell LLP were understandably pleased with the result for Mrs. Major. Mr. Purcell wished to express his gratitude for the assistance his client received from those who appeared in court during the trial: "We are most appreciative of the witnesses with the courage and resolve to come forward and mete out some justice against [Lorillard Tobacco Co.]" The unanimous 12-0 jury verdict found that Mr. Major’s use of Lorillard Tobacco Co.’s Kent cigarettes, of Micronite Filter fame, and Newport cigarettes, Lorillard Tobacco Co.’s menthol brand, caused his death at the age of 55.

The month-long trial brought an end to the present phase of this case which was filed in 1999 and includes a hiatus of several years in its history (3). As to his client and her persistence over the time that her case has been pending, Mr. Purcell noted “Tajie Major is to be commended.”

Purcell further commented that in this case "The jury was superb in their commitment to do the right thing based on the evidence and law." In rendering judgment against Lorillard Tobacco Co., the jury had to confront the plaintiff’s argument that a cigarette was not just tobacco rolled in paper, but instead was a highly engineered, mass produced, complex device, as well that all cigarettes were not created equal. The jury also received evidence from the plaintiff that demonstrated that Lorillard Tobacco Co.’s Kent and Newport products were meticulously designed to create and sustain an addiction to nicotine (3).

Mrs. Major argued that Lorillard Tobacco Co. expanded vast resources to assess the effects of content manipulation and adulteration not only of tobacco itself and the additives to it, but also of the paper that encased the tobacco and the filters through which smoke was inhaled into the lungs. Ultimately, the jury heard how design changes which could have made significant differences in the health impact and safety of their consumers were ignored by Lorillard Tobacco Co (3).

Through much of this same evidence, the jury unanimously concluded that Mr. Major’s lung cancer and death were caused both by the fact that Kent and Newport cigarettes were negligently designed, and that smoking the products created overwhelming and unreasonable risks of harm for the consuming public, like Mr. Major. (2). By their verdict today, the jury unanimously concluded that Kent and Newport cigarettes, made by Lorillard Tobacco Co., failed to meet the California consumer safety based risk-benefit test for design defect.

Unable to assess punitive damages in this wrongful death case, the jury nevertheless found that Mrs. Major had sustained economic loss of $2.15M for the financial support her terminally ill husband could no longer provide. Because of his premature death, they also determined she was entitled to recover an additional $430,000 in related and other lost benefits, and $156,700 for lost household services. Having been married for over 20 years by the time of his death (1), the jury further determined that $10M was an appropriate figure to compensate Mrs. Major for the loss of her husband which she had already sustained, and that an additional $5M was proper for the future loss she would endure because of Mr. Major’s wrongful death. Liability was determined by the jury and Lorillard Tobacco Co. was assessed fault at 17%, while Mr. Major comparative fault was determined to be 50% (3). Other cigarette companies were assessed a 33% share of fault (1) and, despite arguments by Lorillard Tobacco Co. to the contrary, the jury found that possible prior exposure to asbestos played no role in the causation of disease and assigned that agent a 0.0% fault allocation (3).

To prove up Mrs. Major’s case, Mr. Purcell and Mr. Rose utilized two noted local physicians: Pulmonologist Barry Horn, M.D. from Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, and UC Berkeley Epidemiologist, Alan Smith, M.D. Also testifying in the case was Seattle, WA, pathologist, Samuel P. Hammar, M.D., and one of Mr. Major’s treating physicians, Dr. Ronald Miller. These witnesses helped to establish the basic facts of the lung cancer that caused William Major’s death. A former Phillip Morris Co. cigarette design engineer, William Farone, PhD., provided testimony which established that design options utilized by cigarette manufacturers, including Lorillard Tobacco Co., exposed users of their products to hundreds of toxic substances and scores of carcinogens, thereby increasing the risks of disease and death to their customers in the process. Such evidence further demonstrated that such risks were avoidable or subject to substantial reduction by known design alternatives, which were ignored by the manufacturers like Lorillard Tobacco Co. Dr. James DiFranza also testified about the addictive properties of nicotine based upon his years of experience in dealing with addicted smokers. James Mills, PhD, an economist, provided the expert testimony upon which the jury relied as the basis to calculate the economic loss Mrs. Major had suffered. Additionally, testimony of numerous witnesses was presented to establish the nature and extent of Mr. Major’s use of Lorillard Tobacco Co.’s cigarette products.

Assisting the trial team of Gil Purcell and Jason Rose were Brayton Purcell LLP attorney Stephanie Drenski and John Wallace, Of Counsel to the firm.

Opposing Mr. Purcell and Mr. Rose before the Honorable Judge Amy Hogue (LASC,
Dept.: 322) on behalf of Lorillard Tobacco Co., were the St. Louis firm of Thompson Coburn LLP, by Carl L. Rowley and DLA Piper LLP (US) by San Diego partner Brian Foster.

Total verdict: $17,736,700.
1) Palos Verdes Estates widow wins lawsuit against cigarette company, Daily Breeze, July 30, 2014, http://www.dailybreeze.com/general-news/20140730/palos-verdes-estates-widow-wins-lawsuit-against-cigarette-company

2) Naval Captain’s Widow Wins Big Tobacco Verdict, Los Angeles Daily Journal, August 1, 2014, http://www.braytonlaw.com/Firm-Overview/News/Naval-Captains-Widow-Wins-Big-Tobacco-Verdict.shtml (scan of physical document)

3) Lorillard Must Pay $4M In Wrongful Death Suit, Jury Says, August 4, 2014, Law360, https://www.law360.com/articles/563977/lorillard-must-pay-4m-in-wrongful-death-suit-jury-says

4) Tajie Major vs. Lorillard Tobacco Co., Case No. BC473650, Case Summary, Los Angeles Superior Court, http://www.lasuperiorcourt.org/civilcasesummarynet/ui/casesummary.aspx

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