$2 million award in smoking lawsuit

Baltimore County man wins against makers of Kents, asbestos filter

April 30, 1999|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore jury awarded more than $2 million yesterday to a cancer victim who smoked cigarettes with asbestos filters -- a landmark verdict against the twin poisons of tobacco and asbestos.

The verdict against the manufacturer of Kent cigarettes, which used asbestos in its filters for four years in the 1950s, and Hollingsworth & Vose Co., which made the "Micronite" filters, is the largest in a series of lawsuits brought against both companies in the past decade.

Lawyers for Lorillard Inc., which manufactures Kent, Newport and Old Gold cigarettes, said they would appeal the $2.2 million verdict. The companies have won all but two of the 11 other suits that have been tried.

Kent cigarettes are the only brand that put asbestos in the filters, both sides in the case said yesterday. In the 1950s, the company hailed the brand as the market's safest cigarette, calling it "the protection you need" against the unhealthy effects of tar and nicotine.

The idea was that asbestos acted as an efficient filter of the toxins.

"Kent -- the one cigarette that can show you proof of greater health protection," an ad for the cigarette read.

Lawyers who monitor tobacco litigation across the country said yesterday's verdict reflects a growing jury hostility toward cigarette manufacturers.

For decades, lawsuits filed by ailing smokers against the tobacco companies failed, as juries concluded that smokers should not blame the manufacturers for their decision to smoke.

But in recent years, a flood of revelations about the companies' efforts to cover up information about smoking hazards and nicotine addiction has made them more vulnerable.

"It's very important," said Richard A. Daynard, a law professor at Northeastern University and chairman of the Tobacco Products Liability Project. "It shows that juries are now willing to hit tobacco companies hard for misbehavior. And in this case, for misbehavior that took place 40 years ago."

Baltimore County resident Charles M. P. Connor, 75, was diagnosed with the cancer mesothelioma -- which is specifically linked to asbestos -- in June 1997. He had stopped smoking more than 35 years before.

Michael T. Edmonds, of the law firm of Peter T. Nicholl, said the asbestos filters on the cigarettes caused the lung cancer. Connor smoked a pack of Kent cigarettes a day for eight years.

The company used the Micronite filter from 1952 until 1956 -- despite a scientist's report that asbestos fibers were leaking into the smoke, the lawsuit alleges.

Connor smoked Micronite cigarettes for the four years they were on the market.

Roger C. Geary, a Missouri attorney who defended Lorillard, argued that tests done in the 1950s showed that the filters did not release asbestos into the smoke. He said that at the time, medical journals rated Kent as one of the best cigarettes for removing tar and nicotine.

"It was a very efficient filter," Geary said. He said the company stopped using the filters in the 1950s because they were expensive and made the cigarettes taste bad.

Geary said he was "disappointed" in the decision made by the jury's four men and two women after the two-week trial. He refused to say how many other cases are pending against the companies.

Andrew McElaney, a lawyer for Hollingsworth & Vose, declined to comment on the verdict as he left the courtroom.

The lawsuit alleged an elaborate cover-up by the companies to hide the dangers of the filter and the cigarettes. Edmonds said that while the company was creating a market sensation by billing itself as the healthy alternative in cigarettes, it was desperately trying to find ways to get rid of the asbestos in the filter.

In early 1954, the tobacco company hired two scientists to examine whether asbestos fiber was leaking into the smoke. The studies determined that the filters were defective.

But the reports vanished, the lawsuit states. The company continued to market the cigarette until the filter was changed in 1956.

"They knew asbestos was lethal and they put it in the [tip] of a cigarette. It doesn't get much more graphic than that," Edmonds said.

Connor had also sued Owens Corning at the same time he sued the tobacco company for his alleged exposure to asbestos while working at a local airplane manufacturing plant as an assemblyman and electrical technician.

Owens Corning settled its suit with Connor yesterday no more than a half-hour before the jury returned its verdict.

Sun staff writer Scott Shane contributed to this article.

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