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Big victory for Big Tobacco in Kanawha County

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After deliberating for about four hours, jurors sided almost entirely with tobacco companies Wednesday in a case that involved hundreds of West Virginia smokers.

During the nearly four-week trial, plaintiffs tried to convince jurors that tobacco companies R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, American Tobacco Co., Philip Morris and Lorillard were negligent, designed a defective product or fraudulently withheld information about their products.

"It's virtually a complete defense victory," said Jeff Furr, attorney for R.J. Reynolds.

The jury of five women and three men did not find evidence that punitive damages should be awarded. They also decided cigarette companies weren't negligent designing testing or manufacturing their cigarettes, didn't fail to warn smokers and, among other things, didn't intentionally conceal evidence regarding the dangers of smoking.

The plaintiffs proved one of six claims. The claim said that all ventilated filter cigarettes manufactured and sold between 1964 and 1969 were defective because of a failure to instruct.

"Those are the lights and ultra lights," said Kenneth McClain, the lead plaintiffs' attorney. "It's actually a victory in a tobacco case. It's very rare that a jury finds the defendants at fault. Usually, it's automatically the smoker's fault."

McClain estimates about 100 out of 700 individual claims will be tried as a result of Wednesday's verdict.

However, Furr said, the resulting individual claims are "very narrow."

"It's a five-year time period in the '60s and brands very few plaintiffs smoked," he said, giving the Carlton brand as an example.

McClain argued during the trial that tobacco companies should've instructed smokers not to cover ventilation holes in cigarettes, noting they often would end up covered by lipstick. He also said smokers were fooled into thinking light and ultra light cigarettes were less risky.

Philip Morris USA released a statement from its Richmond, Va., headquarters on the verdict. "We believe that the jury appropriately rejected the plaintiffs' claims for design defect, negligence failure to warn, breach of warranty and concealment and refused to find that any of PM USA's conduct warranted punitive damages."

It continued, "Although we disagree with the jury's verdict on this narrow claim, in the event that any plaintiff chooses to pursue this claim [the company] has strong defenses."

Furr told jurors in closing arguments that when ventilated filter cigarettes were first introduced doctor's believed they were safer.

"Then, everyone thought they were less risky," Furr said, but, "there's no such thing as a safe cigarette."

After the verdict was read, Senior Status Ohio County Circuit Judge Arthur Recht, who has been handling the case for almost 13 years, told attorneys to make a plan to proceed with the individual claims, limited to ventilated filters.

 The jurors who decided the case were chosen from a panel of 8,000 Kanawha County residents, believed to be the largest ever summoned in the state.

Two previous efforts to seat a jury in Kanawha County proved unsuccessful. Recht has said those difficulties stemmed from potential jurors' strong feelings on both sides of the issues.

In 2011, Recht declared a mistrial in Wheeling after it became clear the issues in the case were broader than had been anticipated, he said.

In 2001, a Wheeling jury ruled in favor of the tobacco companies -- holding that they should not be responsible for smokers' medical monitoring. The West Virginia Supreme Court later affirmed that verdict.

Plaintiffs had attempted to require the defendants to pay for periodic doctor visits and tests to determine if smoking was the cause of their health problems.

Furr, a Charleston native who now lives in North Carolina, has worked for R.J. Reynolds for 20 years. He attended George Washington High School, West Virginia University and law school at Wake Forest.

He said he enjoyed being in Charleston for the trial, which was held in the ceremonial courtroom of the old Kanawha County Courthouse.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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