First-Ever Wrongful Death Settlement Involving Chewing Tobacco Reached

The Associated Press is reporting that Altria Group, Inc., the maker of smokeless tobacco products Skoal and Copenhagen, reached an agreement with a plaintiff in December that is believed to be the first-ever wrongful death settlement involving chewing tobacco. Estate of Bobby Hill v. U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., FST-CV-05-4003788 (Connecticut Superior Court). The Big Tobacco manufacturer paid $5 million the family of the North Carolina man, who died of mouth cancer at age 42.

Attorney Antonio Ponvert III, who reportedly represented the decedent’s family, had some powerful ammunition in the form of “incredibly damning documents” to use in his battle against the tobacco maker. According to him, his case was bolstered by some previously undisclosed letters from the 1980s that the company sent to minors, thanking them for their business and sending them free samples. In once instance, he said, the company even sent a child a can opener to aid him in opening the chewing tobacco containers.

While this sort of information and the thought of a multi-million dollar pre-suit settlement may convince many plaintiffs’ attorneys to sign up some clients, an Altria spokesman has reportedly issued a statement to assuage such desires. According to the spokesman, “[the company has] no intention of settling cases such as this in the future.” In fact, there were several circumstances at issue here that made this particular claim unique.

First, Altria acquired the named defendant, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., last year, and reportedly was perhaps honoring an agreement that that company had made with the plaintiff prior to the acquisition. Second, it also is possible that Altria simply wanted to resolve all legal issues remaining from its acquisition. Third, the plaintiff was not a drinker or user of cigarettes, which are risk factors tobacco companies often point out to as possibly having caused the cancer. Finally, the plaintiff was a relatively young, married father of two who died in a particularly painful and gruesome manner. The plaintiff had undergone multiple surgeries to remove his tongue.

This is certainly an interesting first-of-its-kind. It remains to be seen whether this is truly a unique event, or simply the first of a new strategy for Big Tobacco product liability matters.

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