Leslie Whiteley was a successful Plaintiff in a trial against the tobacco industry.
Leslie Whiteley was a mother of four who started smoking in 1972 at age 13, and continued to do so for the next 25 years. At the age of 40, she developed metastatic terminal lung cancer. On March 20, 2000, a San Francisco Jury found Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds liable for negligent cigarette design and fraud and awarded Leslie Whiteley $1.72 million in compensatory damages and $20 million in punitive damages.
PM and RJR argued that Ms. Whiteley was to blame for her cancer because she ignored health warnings on cigarette packets, continued to smoke during pregnancy, and further injured her lungs by smoking marijuana as well. The jury ruled that PM and RJR acted with malice and fraud and deliberately misled the public about smoking hazards. The court's decision dismantled a key defense the tobacco industry had used in personal injury cases. Previously, it had been believed that warning labels on cigarettes protected manufacturers against lawsuits brought by people who took up smoking after they had appeared. Jury foreman Michael Criscola said that the jury was punishing the companies largely because they knew about the hazards of smoking but hid them for 50 years.
The court reversed the verdict on the grounds that the jury should have been instructed that the industry had full products liability immunity in California for ten years (1988-97). In 1988 the California Legislature passed a statute dubbed the "Napkin Deal" that provided immunity for the tobacco industry from litigation in California.
In 2009, California's First District Court of Appeals ruled unanimously to uphold a $2.85 million damage award against Philip Morris (PM) and R.J. Reynolds (RJR) in the Whiteley case. The tobacco companies argued that they weren't responsible for statements made by their trade and lobbying group, the Tobacco Institute, during the 1970s and 1980s that scientific research was inconclusive about the dangers of smoking. The Court said that Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds were among the tobacco companies that founded and bankrolled pro-industry groups like the Council for Tobacco Research that performed so-called "independent research." Presiding Justice J. Anthony Kline pointed out that the companies "never publicly contradicted any of the false or misleading statements made by these entities," and that RJR and PM "engaged in a campaign of deception ... intended, among other things, to provide a psychological crutch' to keep addicted smokers smoking."
Related Sourcewatch resources
- The U.S. Government's racketeering case against Big Tobacco
- Tobacco Institute
- Council for Tobacco Research
- Deborah Josefson, British Medical Journal Tobacco companies in US to pay smoker $22m (£13.8m) British Medical Journal, April 8, 2000, Pg.957
- Richard Daynard [http://www.tobacco.neu.edu/litigation/cases/Backgrounders/Whiteley2_compensatory.htm Attorney Who Has Never Lost a Trial Against Big Tobacco Returns to the Courtroom and Wins in Retrial of Lung Cancer Case]Press release, Tobacco Products Liability Project, Northeastern University, May 3, 2007
- Bob Egelko Court upholds verdict against tobacco firms San Francisco Chronicle. October 16, 2009
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