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Family of dead smoker awarded $81 million

PORTLAND, Ore., March 30 -- In what's said to be the largest verdict ever against a tobacco giant, an Oregon jury awarded $81 million to the family of a man who died of lung cancer after smoking Philip Morris' Marlboro cigarettes for 40 years. The wife and six children of Jesse Williams had sought $101 million, alleging the company knew its product could cause cancer.

The 67-year-old Williams died in 1997 after four decades of smoking up to three packs of Marlboros per day. Earlier this year, a San Francisco jury awarded $51.5 million to a Marlboro smoker with inoperable lung cancer. The tobacco industry has managed to overcome similar verdicts in the appeal process, but Wall Street analysts were reportedly keeping a close watch on the Portland case to see if a new trend in such multimillion- dollar verdicts was emerging. Plaintiffs' lawyers portrayed Williams as a former janitor with Portland Public Schools who was heavily addicted to nicotine and refused to believe the manufacturer would sell a harmful product. In closing arguments, the attorneys cited internal Philip Morris documents to support their claim that the company was well aware of the cancer-causing potential of cigarettes but chose to hide the information from its customers. The 12-member Multnomah County, Ore., jury found that Philip Morris was negligent and misrepresented the dangers of its product. It awarded the family $1.6 million in compensatory damages and $79.5 million in punitive damages. ---

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