BOSTON -- Lorillard Tobacco Co. is optimistic that the Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court will overturn a $116-million ruling on the basis that the Greensboro, N.C.-based company was denied a fair trial in 2010. Lawyers representing Lorillard argued that the original judge allowed the jury to hear biased and untrue claims from the plaintiff. Willie Evans sued the company on behalf of his mother Marie Evans, who died of lung cancer in 2002, accusing Lorillard of hooking Marie Evans on Newports by targeting African Americans and children through free cigarette samples handed out in the Boston housing project where she grew up.
“This story was obviously racially charged and inflammatory,” the company's lawyers argued in their appeal. “The racial aspects of the story were also entirely irrelevant. There was no evidence that Lorillard conceived Newport as an 'African-American' brand. The evidence was that Lorillard marketed Newport to all races, using the same advertising campaign in magazines directed to African-Americans as it did in general-circulation magazines.”
Although Lorillard vehemently denied giving free cigarette samples to children, Marie Evans' sister testified that the cigarettes were delivered in a white truck, drawing both adults and children from Boston’s Orchard Park housing project. Additionally, the jury was shown a videotaped deposition that featured Marie Evans testifying about the impact of the samples.
“Because they were available, ... I didn't worry about finding money to buy them,” she said, claiming she started smoking the free Newports at the age of 13. Evans continued to smoke heavily and was unable to quit, despite multiple health scares, including a heart attack in 1985.
Lorillard believes the original $152-million verdict (which was later reduced to $116 million) came in part because the trial judge allowed the jury to hear Evans’ claim that the company targeted minorities and children.
“We believe the plaintiff prevailed at trial due to significant departures from Massachusetts law in several important aspects in a proceeding which violated Lorillard's fundamental due-process rights," Lorillard spokesman Gregg Perry told the Associated Press.
The Product Liability Advisory Council Inc., the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and several other businesses have all filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Lorillard's appeal, which could have broad impact on future Massachusetts litigation.
If the judgment is upheld, Perry said, “it would have the potential to induce a flood of litigation against manufacturers selling all manner of products in Massachusetts and thereby undermine the state's business climate.”
Oral arguments to the Supreme Judicial Court are set to start on Dec. 3.