A federal court jury found today that smokeless tobacco did not cause the cancer that took the life of 19-year-old Sean Marsee.
The verdict in the $147 million suit against United States Tobacco Co. was a victory for the tobacco industry, which has never lost or settled a product-liability lawsuit. After the verdict was announced by U.S. District Judge David L. Russell shortly past noon (EDT), tobacco stocks surged on Wall Street.
The six jurors deliberated less than six hours over two days before deciding that Sean Marsee's six-year use of U.S. Tobacco's Copenhagen brand of snuff did not cause the tongue cancer that killed him in 1984. The suit was brought by his mother, Betty Marsee.
Two of the four women jurors cried as they left the courtroom for a meeting in the judge's chambers, where they accepted Russell's offer to let them depart by a back corridor. They ignored questions as they filed out.
One juror, asking not to be identified, told The Washington Post later that the jury had no difficulty agreeing that snuff had not been shown to cause oral cancer, while also agreeing that, in isolation, the potent carcinogens that snuff contains -- called nitrosamines -- cause cancer in laboratory animals.
The juror also said it was "very obvious" that U.S. Tobacco Chairman Louis F. Bantle and Dr. Ricahrd A. Manning, vice president for research and development, "stonewalled."
Manning, who testified he didn't know what a carcinogen is, "pretended he didn't know anything at all," the juror said. "The chairman was even worse than Manning."
U.S. Tobacco spokesman Larry Alan, who declined to answer questions, said the jury found that the company was "not responsible for this young man's tragic death . . . we commend the jury on its clear thinking and its ability to sort things out" after hearing more than 40 witnesses -- many of them scientific experts with opposing views -- in 22 days of trial.
George W. Braly and Dania Deschamps-Braly, the Ada, Okla., husband-and-wife team representing Betty Marsee, told a news conference that some of the judge's rulings raised "serious issues that could warrant an appeal."
Breaking into sobs and gripping Deschamps-Braly's hand at the news conference, Betty Marsee said that what most worried her was that "the kids would think that smokeless tobacco is a safe product."
Deschamps-Braly said: "Please don't interpret what happened today as meaning snuff is safe. It is not." She and her husband said that U.S. Tobacco is destined to lose future mouth-cancer lawsuits.
The threshold question for the jurors was whether the Bralys showed with "a preponderance of the evidence" that Sean's use of Copenhagen caused the cancer that started on his tongue.
Their answer being no, Braly said, the jury did not reach other issues, such as whether U.S. Tobacco acted in "reckless disregard" of public safety, what it "knows about safety and how long it has known it," and whether it promotes snuff to youngsters.
Alston Jennings of Little Rock, Ark., representing U.S. Tobacco, argued to the jury that there was no adequate scientific evidence that Sean Marsee's use of snuff caused the tongue cancer. He emphasized that Sean Marsee kept the snuff between the cheek and gum, and that no abnormality existed at that site.
Braly told the news conference that Russell let the defense show the jury "old" and "isolated reports in medical literature" indicating that snuff use by youths did not cause cancer. These reports were among the exhibits requested by the jury for its deliberations.
But, Braly said, Russell refused in pretrial proceedings and then in the trial to let him tell the jury of recent mouth-cancer cases. And on Wednesday, the judge refused to let the jury hear a rebuttal witness, Dr. Gregory N. Connolly, state director of dental health for Massachusetts, who would have challenged the medical reports, Braly said.
Alan, the U.S. Tobacco spokesman, said it was "too early to assess" the potential impact of the verdict on either U.S. Tobacco or the industry, but securities analysts said it was a significant victory. "This was the single hardest case facing the industry because U.S. Tobacco had advertised on television and had no warning labels on its tins. So it did not have the defenses that the cigarette companies had in previous cases," said Alan Kaplan, an analyst for Merrill Lynch.
Cigarettes cannot be advertised on television, and their packages and print advertising must carry health warnings. A new law that takes effect soon bans ads for smokeless tobacco on radio or TV and requires health warnings on packages.
On the New York Stock Exchange, U.S. Tobacco climbed $4.75 to $40.75, American Brands rose $1.25 to $88.875, R. J. Reynolds rose $2.675 to $51.675 and Philip Morris gained $2.50 to $69.875.
In Washington, Matthew L. Myers, executive director of the Coalition on Smoking and Health, said in an interview: "The decision in this single case does not give a clean bill of health to the smokeless-tobacco industry. As the number of cases involving mouth cancer mounts, and as the scientific evidence, becomes clearer and clearer, it will only be a matter of time before U.S. Tobacco will lose a product-liability case."