Mass. high court awards $37 million in cancer suit against tobacco maker Philip Morris
In a unanimous ruling, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court awarded a Newton woman $37 million in a lawsuit against Philip Morris USA, the country’s biggest cigarette manufacturer.
The justices' opinion, issued Tuesday, found enough evidence to support a prior jury verdict and lower court judge's rulings against the company in a case that claimed Marlboro Light cigarettes — and the company's claims about them — resulted in the plaintiff's cancer.
Patricia Walsh Greene sued Philip Morris for false advertising and intentional misinformation, arguing that the company's promises about filtered cigarettes affected her decision to smoke and, ultimately, caused her cancer.
Greene was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2013. By 2018, the cancer spread to her brain. She has undergone several surgeries and chemotherapy treatments since her diagnoses.
The crux of Greene’s argument was that Philip Morris engaged in conspiracy and fraud — particularly in advertising its Marlboro Light cigarettes. For a nine-month period in 1995, Greene claimed she had quit smoking. But then she said she saw advertisements for Marlboro Lights, which convinced her the filtered product had "less of the bad stuff.”
Advertisements for Marlboro Lights claimed they contained less tar and nicotine than regular Marlboro cigarettes. A Superior Court jury found the company engaged in a civil conspiracy.
In the high court opinion, written by Justice Scott Kafker, the justices found the company failed to disclose its own research to customers, which showed that filtered cigarettes were even more damaging to human DNA than regular cigarettes. Damage to DNA can lead to cancer.
The opinion noted Philip Morris did not dispute that cigarettes are harmful to health. Instead, the company claimed there was no evidence linking its advertisements to Greene’s personal decision to take up Marlboro Lights as a safer alternative.
One expert witness, Dr. Kenneth Cummings, said cigarette manufacturers spent billions "to hide the truth about what they knew about the dangers of their 8 cigarettes." The campaign, court documents said, "lasted through Greene's childhood and the entire period that she smoked."
WBUR reached out to Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris. The company has not responded.
Greene was represented by attorney Meredith K. Lever, who works with the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University. The institute focuses on lawsuits that target the tobacco industry, in addition to litigation against makers of "unhealthy foods" and those who engage in “deceptive gambling practices.”
Richard Daynard, who leads the institute, said he thinks this case may prompt more people to bring lawsuits against tobacco companies in Massachusetts and across the country.
“The more the tobacco industry actually has to pay these verdicts, the more careful they will be in not misrepresenting their product," he said. "And maybe they’ll get out of the business entirely.”
Daynard added that aggressive tobacco advertising continued until roughly 2000, when legal troubles and regulations forced companies to disclose the harmful effects of smoking. He thinks people who started smoking before 2000 may have a “very good case” against tobacco manufacturers.
After the jury verdict, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Hélène Kazanjian also ruled that Philip Morris violated the state's consumer protection laws. The $37 million award to Greene includes the original sum plus 12% in interest that has accumulated since her lawsuit was first filed in 2015.