$81M in punitive damages for giving kids free cigs
A tobacco company that had tried to hook black children on cigarettes was ordered last week to pay $81 million in punitive damages to the estate and son of a Boston woman who started smoking at age 13, in what an attorney said is one of the largest jury awards of its kind in the United States.
The verdict came one day after jurors decided Greensboro, North Carolina-based Lorillard Tobacco Co. should pay $71 million in compensatory damages to Willie Evans and the estate of his mother, Marie, who died of lung cancer in 2002. Their lawsuit claimed Marie Evans began smoking after Lorillard gave away free cigarette samples at the Boston housing project where she lived.
During the trial, a lawyer for Lorillard said that like many other cigarette companies it gave samples decades ago to adults in an attempt to get them to switch brands. But the company insisted it did not give cigarettes to children and called the allegation that it intentionally gave samples to black children “disturbing.”
The company’s lawyer also said Evans herself decided to start smoking and continued to smoke even after she suffered a heart attack in 1985 and her doctors repeatedly urged her to quit.
A company spokesman declined to comment last Thursday and referred to a statement issued a day earlier that said Lorillard disagrees with the jury verdict and would appeal.
Still, that did not discourage attorneys for Evans from savoring success in court.
Marie Evans “was vindicated” and got what she had wanted when she sat for three days of videotaped deposition just weeks before she died, said Michael Weisman, one of her son’s attorneys.
“One of the questions I asked her was, ‘Is this something you really want to do?’” Weisman said. “She said she did, and she wanted to do it because she wanted to tell her story because ... one day she wanted the jury to hear her story.”
Her son was gratified by last week’s jury verdict, Weisman said.
“He was very proud that he had been there and had done what his mom wanted him to do,” Weisman said.
Edward L. Sweda, senior attorney for the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Boston’s Northeastern University School of Law, called the verdict “one of the largest individual punitive damages in the United States and it’s combined with the largest compensatory damages verdict ever in the U.S. for an individual in a tobacco case.”
A judge has yet to rule on allegations that Lorillard committed unfair or deceptive acts when it handed out the free cigarettes. The company makes Kent, True, Old Gold, Maverick and Max cigarettes.
Under Massachusetts law, the judge can award additional money to Evans and his mother’s estate if there is evidence that Lorillard lied, was manipulative and committed illegal practices as a corporation, said Thomas Srisardi, another attorney for Evans.
Church before Gov. Patrick’s second inaugural
The change in economy is prompting Gov. Deval Patrick to eschew another outdoor inaugural in favor of a more intimate indoor swearing-in, open house and a $50-per-person party at the Boston Public Library.
The events on Jan. 6 will be followed two days later by a youth town hall meeting, community service event and celebration hosted by the governor and first lady Diane Patrick.
Four years ago, Patrick raised $2 million to commemorate the beginning of his service as the state’s first black chief executive. He and Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray ended up donating a $500,000 surplus to charity — an amount that exceeds the estimated $400,000 they will spend on their latest festivities.
“Everything about this inauguration is scaled down from the last time, in keeping with the times,” Patrick said last week as he unveiled the plans during a news conference at Faneuil Hall.
He was flanked by New England Patriots players Vince Wilfork, Kevin Faulk and Patrick Chung; former Boston Bruins player Cam Neely; and two eighth-graders who will participate in the youth town hall meeting, service event and celebration. Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Boston Celtics managing partner Stephen Pagliuca and a Boston Red Sox representative were on hand, as well.
Also participating was Lynn Margherio of Cradles to Crayons, which provides school supplies and other everyday essentials to underprivileged children, and is an inaugural partner.
The announcement was spiced with speeches by the eighth-graders who are participating in “Project 351,” the youth activities that will draw representatives of each of the state’s 351 cities and towns.
The governor said he wants to renew a call to public service.
“The goal is for Project 351 to generate ripples of impact that then move on back into communities to make a positive difference there, in their homes, in their schools, and beyond,” he said.
Shannon Keith, who attends Sacred Heart School in Boston, has already baked cookies for the Pine Street Shelter.
“There is always a sense of pride in knowing that I have touched someone else’s life,” she said.
Matthew Cappucci, who attends the Plymouth Middle School and has worked at a lemonade stand for charity, said: “I think the lemonade stand has done more for me than I have done for it.”
Holder: Health care fraud work reaping dividends
Attorney General Eric Holder said last week an Obama administration crackdown on health care fraud is paying dividends, recovering more than $4 billion in Massachusetts alone during the past two years.
The nation’s chief law enforcement officer told attendees at a summit the government will gain new tools and resources through the recently enacted Affordable Care Act, which is providing $350 million more over the next 10 years to root out fraud.
“Simply put, we have taken our fight against health case fraud to a new level, and I am committed to continued collaboration, vigilance and progress,” said the text of remarks Holder delivered at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who also attended the meeting, said the success “has been built on initiatives like these combining the experience and insight of our law enforcement teams with new resources and cutting-edge technology.”
Earlier this year, President Barack Obama announced a nationwide series of regional summits as part of an expanded effort to crack down on Medicare fraud.
Waste and fraud cost the federal Medicare program and Medicaid, its state counterpart, an estimated $54 billion in 2009, including elaborate schemes by fraudsters peddling everything from wheelchairs to hospice care.
The Boston area is replete with hospitals and health care providers, making it one of the government’s hot spots for fraud analysis.
The Massachusetts recoveries include a $2.3 billion settlement with Pfizer Inc. in September 2009 that was largely begun and ended during the Bush administration. The settlement resolved allegations the company had illegally marketed its painkiller Bextra, which was subsequently withdrawn from the market.
Similar health care fraud summits have already taken place in Miami, Los Angeles and New York City, and others are being held in Detroit, Philadelphia and Las Vegas.
The Boston event included education panels featuring law enforcement officials, consumer experts, health care providers and federal, state and local government agencies.