A lawyer for the plaintiff said her firm alone had "hundreds" of similar cases pending, most of them based on the argument that tobacco companies had failed adequately to warn smokers of the addictiveness of cigarettes.
Tobacco shares plunged on Wall Street after the Florida verdict was returned on Friday afternoon against Brown & Williamson, manufacturers of Lucky Strike. The company is the American cigarette-making subsidiary of BAT Industries of Britain. The news hit the shares of US tobacco giants Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco, which fell by 13 per cent just before the markets closed on Friday. British financial analysts expect BAT to take a beating in the London market tomorrow.
The plaintiff in the Florida case, 66-year-old Grady Carter, had asked for $1.5m from Brown & Williamson but declared himself happy with the $750,000 award. "Somebody had to take these people on," he said. "A lot of people are dying of lung cancer."
The jury found after two days of deliberations that the cigarettes Mr Carter smoked were a "defective" product and that the makers had shown negligence in not alerting smokers to how dangerous they were.
The key to the case was the court's decision to allow the defence to introduce internal Brown & Williamson documents as evidence. One of these, written in 1963 by the company's president, said: "We are, then, in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug."
Lawyers for Brown & Williamson have said they will appeal, basing their case in part on the claim that the internal company documents presented before the Florida court should have been deemed inadmissible evidence.
They had argued that smoking was one of many risks that Mr Carter, a retired air traffic controller, had chosen to take in his life. They noted, for example, that he was a licenced pilot of private planes.
Philip Morris USA called the verdict an "aberration". Jurors in smoking and health cases, the company said, "have traditionally used their common sense in weighing the evidence, and deciding not to award money damages to plaintiffs who made the decision to smoke".
So far tobacco companies have not had to pay a cent in damages to litigants who claimed cigarettes had damaged their health. The closest they came was in 1988 when a New Jersey court awarded damages of $400,000 to a long- time smoker. But an appeal court overturned the decision.
Cigarette warning labels on packets first became mandatory in the US in 1966. Under law, tobacco manufacturers cannot be held liable for any failure after 1970 to inform smokers of the dangers of cigarettes.Reuse content