Don’t say lawsuits can’t be fun.
Like the woman in Knoxville who’s suing McDonald’s because the pickle on her Big Mac was too hot. This “dangerous and defective product” slipped out of the bun and put a blister on her chin, allegedly causing some problems in her marriage. She says she’ll put the
matter to rest for $125,000. Or the Texas guy who’s suing a topless bar, saying he got neck and back injuries when an exotic dancer bounced over and knocked him off his chair with her ample bosom.
Richard Boeken’s case is more serious and more expensive. A lifelong smoker,
Boeken, 56, gave a thumbs-up sign as the super-jackpot verdict in his case
was recently announced, the largest judgment ever made in an individual
smoker’s suit against Big Tobacco, and one of the biggest individual verdicts
in American history.
Deciding that cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris was responsible for
Boeken’s incurable lung cancer, a Los Angeles jury awarded Boeken $5.5
million in general damages and $3 billion in punitive damages.
“Those are valuable lungs, this plaintiff’s,” commented William F. Buckley
Jr. “At $3 billion, they’re worth more than the Empire State Building and
Rockefeller Center combined.”
Today in America, there are 50 million smokers and 50 million ex-smokers.
What those numbers say is that it’s not impossible to beat the habit, and
there’s not enough money to pay $3 billion to everyone who kills themselves
with cigarettes (if there were, smokers would have, in very short order,
enough courtroom winnings to buy up everything in Manhattan and every beach
house from Maine to Key West).
Boeken began smoking in 1957, at age 13, back before warnings were put on
cigarette packs, and averaged two packs of Marlboros a day for 40 years – in all, 584,000 cigarettes. Jacob Sullum, senior editor at Reason magazine,
explains the verdict: “Richard Boeken, a 56-year-old securities broker from
Topanga, California, is dying of lung cancer. But that’s not why a Los
Angeles jury decided Philip Morris should pay him $3 billion. Boeken was
awarded this prize in recognition of an amazing feat: He managed to live for
nearly half a century without realizing that cigarette smoking is a dangerous
habit. Or so he says. According to CNN, Boeken testified that he ‘never heard
or read about the health risks of smoking until congressional hearings were
held in 1994.’ This claim does not simply strain credulity; it smashes
credulity into a million tiny pieces.”
An editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune reaches the same conclusion: “Where was
this guy living when he puffed all those packs – a deserted island?
Certainly he was not living in the United States, where, for almost 40 years,
cigarette packs have carried government warnings that tell smokers probably
the only thing more harmful to your health than smoking would be standing in
the middle of a high-level nuclear waste dump for 40 years.”
It’s true that warnings labels weren’t on cigarette packs when young Boeken
lit up his first cigarette, but, as Sullum reports, the health risks related
to smoking were a major focus of public conversation while Boeken was growing
up: “Studies linking cigarettes to lung cancer received wide attention in the
early ’50s, leading to what history books describe as ‘The Cancer Scare.’
Those reports were followed by two dozen others – all of which apparently
escaped Boeken’s attention.”
Warning labels began appearing on cigarette packs in 1966, when Boeken was
22. In 1972, when Boeken was 28, warning labels began appearing in every
cigarette ad. In addition, says Sullum, Boeken “ignored or dismissed the
public service announcements, newspaper and magazine articles, TV and radio
reports, posters, pamphlets, buttons, billboards, and bumper stickers that
highlighted the most widely publicized health hazard of the 20th century.”
Happy with the verdict (and set to pocket $900 million if the award is upheld
on appeal), Boeken’s attorney, Michael Piuze, paints a different picture,
explaining that his client had kicked heroin, methadone and alcohol but just
couldn’t get off the Marlboros. Calling Philip Morris “the world’s biggest
drug dealer, something that puts the Colombian drug cartels to shame,” Piuze
argued in court that Boeken was a victim of a decades-long tobacco industry
campaign to promote smoking as “cool.”
University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos sees “a genteel species of
theft” in such suits: “Mr. Boeken testified under oath that he did not become
aware of warnings regarding the dangers of cigarettes until the mid-1990s. As
a reward for perjuring himself in such a ludicrous fashion, he has won a $3
billion dollar judgment from a Los Angeles jury, a sum of cash equal to what
a working class person (that is, a typical smoker) would earn over the course
of approximately 3,000 lifetimes.”
On the same day that Boeken was awarded $3 billion, a new RAND Institute
study was released announcing that obese people invite greater health risks
than daily smokers or heavy drinkers, and that three of every five adult
Americans are either overweight or obese.
I can only imagine the award that
will some day be given to the first lifetime victim of Ben & Jerry, the
hippie entrepreneurs who “should have known” about the addictive powers of
Chunky Monkey and Chubby Hubby. With the enticements on their packages and
seductive products inside, these guys make Pablo Escobar look like an amateur.