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Tobacco Cos Found Not Guilty in N.J. Case
By Jessica Wohl
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Philip Morris Cos. Inc. (NYSE:MO - news) and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc. (NYSE:RJR - news) were found not guilty on Wednesday in a wrongful death case brought by the husband of a deceased former smoker, extending the industry's winning streak in cases brought by individuals.
A six-member jury at Middlesex County Superior Court in New Brunswick, New Jersey unanimously ruled in favor of the top two U.S. tobacco companies in a case brought by Dr. Myron Mehlman on behalf of his deceased wife, Constance Mehlman.
Mrs. Mehlman was diagnosed with lung cancer and died in 1997 at the age of 62. She had started smoking at age 17 and quit in 1974.
Mehlman, a PhD biochemist toxicologist who teaches at the Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine, had been seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. His wife had smoked Philip Morris' Marlboro and RJR's Camel brands.
The plaintiff's attorneys argued that the companies knew of the link between smoking and cancer since before 1950 but failed to warn consumers of such risks.
``Ignorance, confusion, lies, and controversy thus became integral elements of the products which the defendants sold,'' the plaintiff's complaint read.
By the time the surgeon general's landmark report that linked smoking with cancer was issued in 1964, Mehlman had been smoking for 13 years.
Plaintiff's attorney Charles Patrick said in opening arguments that the 1964 report showed that heavy cigarette smoking was a cause of cancer in men, but did not mention affects on women. Mehlman continued to smoke after the report was issued.
The plaintiff's attorney did not immediately return calls seeking comment following the verdict.
``The jury understood that Ms. Mehlman was aware of the risks of smoking, made an informed decision to smoke, and was legally responsible for that decision,'' said William Ohlemeyer, Philip Morris vice president and associate general counsel, in a statement released on Wednesday afternoon.
Mehlman's form of lung cancer, adenocarcinoma, ``is often associated with nonsmokers,'' Martin Feldman, Salomon Smith Barney's tobacco analyst said in a note issued following the verdict.
``This case was never likely to have been a particularly tough one for the industry,'' Feldman said. He noted that Mehlman was married to a toxicologist ``and had more exposure to the dangers of smoking than most individuals.''
The verdict continues a string of victories for the tobacco industry. Including today's victory, 11 of the last 12 individual tobacco cases tried have resulted in verdicts for the defense, according to Philip Morris.
``Today's verdict reconfirms the strength of our defenses in individual lawsuits,'' said Daniel Donahue, senior vice president and deputy general counsel for Reynolds Tobacco. ``This verdict is a victory for common sense and should put plaintiffs' attorneys on notice that jurors will not reward plaintiffs who make a fully informed decision to smoke.''
The victory marks the eighth consecutive win for the tobacco industry this year and brings the industry's track record to 19 wins in 23 litigated individual trials, Credit Suisse First Boston analyst Bonnie Herzog said in a note.
``Individual trials do not pose a significant threat,'' she said.
Shares of New York-based Philip Morris, the world's largest cigarette maker, closed up $1.43, or 2.81 percent, to $52.35 in trading on the New York Stock Exchange (news - web sites). Shares of Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based R.J. Reynolds closed up $1.30, or 2.20 percent, to $60.30.