SJC upholds $21m verdict against Phillip Morris

Ruling involving Lynn man opens door to other wrongful death lawsuits

MASSACHUSETTS” HIGHEST COURT on Wednesday upheld a $21 million jury verdict that cigarette company Phillip Morris will have to pay the family of a Lynn man who died from smoking-related illness. The ruling could potentially smooth the way for other wrongful death lawsuits from families of smokers, some of which are already being litigated in Massachusetts. 

The 37-page Supreme Judicial Court decision in Pamela Laramie v. Philip Morris USA was written by Justice Dalila Wendlandt on behalf of the court. Pamela Laramie is the widow of Fred Laramie, a Lynn man who died from lung cancer in December 2016, at age 59. 

Paula Bliss, an attorney representing the Laramies, said the family is excited to be one step closer to achieving justice. “They are happy, they’re feeling a little vindicated, and while this doesn’t fully compensate them ever for the loss of Mr. Laramie, they are one step closer to finding peace and justice,” Bliss said. 

Philip Morris has not said whether it will appeal to the US Supreme Court. 

Fred Laramie started smoking when he was 13 and a salesman handed him a free pack of Marlboro cigarettes, a Philip Morris brand. Within a couple of years, he was smoking a pack a day, and he would continue to smoke Marlboros for the rest of his life. 

Pamela Laramie bought a civil lawsuit alleging that Philip Morris sold “defectively designed” cigarettes, because they were addictive and unreasonably dangerous. Over Philip Morris’ objections that Laramie knew the dangers of smoking and smoked anyway, a jury awarded Laramie $21 million. Philip Morris appealed. 

A central issue in the case is whether individuals can sue a cigarette maker for damages or whether individual suits are precluded by a 1998 multi-state settlement that states, including Massachusetts, entered into with Philip Morris and other tobacco manufacturers. The Massachusetts attorney general had sued Philip Morris and other companies for deceiving consumers about the health risks of smoking, seeking to recover money the state had paid for smoking-related health care.  

In a 1998 master settlement, the tobacco companies agreed to pay $240 billion over 25 years to the states, and around $9 billion annually in perpetuity. Massachusetts got around 4 percent of the money.  

Philip Morris argued that the master settlement precluded individual lawsuits against the company; the Laramies disagreed. In its ruling, the SJC found that the master settlement does not prevent individuals from filing a wrongful death or personal injury lawsuit against Philip Morris. Wendlandt wrote that there is a difference between suing for damages against an individual and damages against the state, even though both lawsuits related to the same conduct. The SJC also rejected several other claims related to potential errors at the trial. 

If the SJC ruling is not overturned by the Supreme Court, it will set a precedent for other similar cases. Already, there are dozens of cases against tobacco companies proceeding in state courts, with trials scheduled over the next couple of years.  

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Attorney General Maura Healey’s office had filed a brief in support of the Laramies. “Despite knowing that cigarettes are a powerfully addictive substance, cause fatal disease, and hook young people at higher rates, Big Tobacco pushed its dangerous products into the hands of people across our country, causing a deadly smoking epidemic that killed millions,” a spokesperson for Healey said in a statement. “We are pleased that the Court ruled that our groundbreaking settlement to hold cigarette manufacturers accountable also allows for individuals harmed or killed by this wrongful conduct to seek compensation, including punitive damages, through private lawsuits.”

This story was updated with a quote from Healey’s office.