A divided jury in Santa Barbara, Calif., handed R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. a major victory yesterday in the first cigarette product-safety case to be tried to completion in 15 years.
The verdict that Reynolds was not responsible for the death of a chronic smoker whose family had sued came only 10 days after a federal judge in Knoxville, Tenn., threw out another suit against Reynolds on the ground that a smoker who had sued there for damages had failed to prove that Reynolds' cigarettes were "defective and unreasonably dangerous."
Forty-four more smokers' cases are pending against Reynolds in courts across the country. Neither Reynolds nor any other tobacco company has ever settled or lost such a case, but uncertainty about the outcome of suits pending against Reynolds and other tobacco companies has been a factor depressing tobacco companies' stock prices, analysts have said.
On the New York Stock Exchange, two tobacco stocks were on the day's most-active list at the close of trading. Reynolds closed at 33 1/4, up 1 3/4, and Philip Morris Cos. Inc. closed at 90 1/2, up 4.
The California jury decided after nearly nine hours of deliberation that Reynolds was not responsible for the death three years ago of John M. Galbraith, a heavy smoker for 54 years who died in 1982 a few days before he turned 70.
Attorney Melvin M. Belli, representing Galbraith's widow and three adult children, then asked Superior Court Judge Bruce W. Dodds to poll the 12 jurors individually. The poll showed they had split 9 to 3. California state law lets nine jurors decide a civil case.
"We want to stress that we don't like smoking, and we feel smoking is harmful," jury forewoman Stacy Proft said, according to the Associated Press. "The only reason we didn't go to that verdict was that the evidence wasn't there."
A key question in the case was whether Galbraith was addicted to smoking or simply elected to smoke as a matter of personal choice, as Reynolds maintained. One of the minority jurors said, "I believe he Galbraith was addicted to smoking and that's where most of his problems were." But Proft told reporters: "I don't think he was addicted. He had a bad habit."
UPI reported: "Wall Street has carefully watched the trial with several brokerage firm watchdogs taking notes in the courtroom. One industry analyst predicted recently that a Reynolds loss would attract personal injury lawyers to tobacco liability cases "like vampires to blood."
In Richmond, John A. Baugh, a tobacco-securities analyst at Wheat, First Securties, said: "Obviously it's positive for tobacco stocks, and we expect to see them as strong near-term performers."
John L. Strauch, Reynolds' national coordinating counsel, said the verdict "means that the present-day situation is no different than the history which has enabled the tobacco industry to successfully dispose of 146 of these cases before the verdict came in Santa Barbara today.
"The issue always has been, still is, and will continue to be, personal responsibility and accountability for one's own behavior and choices in life.
"The Santa Barbara verdict comes on the heels of the decision of a Knoxville federal court throwing a case like this out of court at the close of plaintiffs' evidence, that the claimed risks of smoking are so well known that actions of this kind ought not be maintained. We see, then, both decisional law and juror attitudes moving in the same positive direction," he said.
Belli said afterward that he would appeal and complained of numerous rulings by the judge, particularly those that restricted his use of the annual reports on smoking made by the surgeon general of the United States. During the trial, which began Nov. 21, "I was ridden by him so much that I've got saddle sores," Belli said.
Dodds, out of the presence of the jury, once told Belli that he had gone to trial with insufficient preparation. The case "was pushed to trial much too rapidly," the judge told him earlier this month.
During deliberations, questions from the jurors indicated they had started by considering whether Galbraith died of lung cancer, of the radiation treatments for the cancer, or of one or more of his other ailments. No autopsy was performed on Galbraith, who was represented by Belli when he died.
The jurors asked to review parts of the testimony of Dr. George Fisher, who had treated Galbraith. Under questioning by Reynolds counsel F. John Nyhan, Fisher said, "I think his death was caused by his heart disease and his pulmonary fibrosis" (a severe, irreversible lung disease not caused by smoking).
Under questioning by Belli associate Paul M. Monzione, however, Lewis said that, if Galbraith had not developed lung cancer and emphysema from smoking and had not received radiation treatments, "I think he probably would have lived at least a matter of months longer and possibly a matter of years. But it would be very difficult for me to try to [quantify] it any better than that."