Philip Morris Cos. and other U.S. cigarette makers did not cause the cancer death of a barber whose family said he got lung cancer from breathing customers' secondhand smoke for 37 years, a Mississippi jury ruled today.
The state court jury deliberated for two hours before voting 11 to 1 in favor of the tobacco companies. It rejected the claims of Burl Butler's family that industry leader Philip Morris, RJR Nabisco Holdings Corp.'s R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. subsidiary and British American Tobacco PLC's Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. had hidden the dangers of prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke.
Saying that Butler, a 61-year-old church deacon, never smoked a day in his life, the family sought $25 million in compensatory damages.
"This is the type of case the industry should win," said David J. Adelman, a tobacco analyst at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. "The scientific evidence that secondhand smoke causes illness is very thin, so these cases are very tough to prove."
The decision, another in a recent string of legal victories for the industry, should discourage other secondhand smoking lawsuits, said Adelman.
The jury of eight women and four men, including three smokers and one who had given up the habit, was not required to reach a unanimous verdict.
"This once again demonstrates that juries can separate emotion from evidence and political correctness from proof," said Jeffrey Furr, a Winston-Salem, N.C., lawyer representing the tobacco companies. The jury understood that there is no credible scientific evidence that secondhand smoke causes cancer, he said.
In the only other secondhand smoke case to go to trial, a jury in 1997 cleared tobacco companies of liability.
In a separate case, cigarette makers agreed last year to pay airline flight attendants exposed to secondhand smoke on the job $349 million to settle a class action suit.
In Butler's case, tobacco industry lawyers argued that his family's health history, his diet and his long-term exposure to hair spray and talcum powder were bigger factors in causing his lung cancer than secondhand smoke.