Big Tobacco recently paid $5 Million to settle a wrongful death claim to the Estate of Bobby Hill. A resident of Canton, North Carolina, Hill died from mouth cancer in 2003 at the young age of 42. He had been dipping since age 13. Altria makes and sells Skoal and Copenhagen. This is the first settlement of its kind in the smokeless tobacco arena.
Many familiar with the cigarette litigation say that this settlement will cause plaintiff's lawyers to start filing more cases against the smokeless tobacco giant. Hill dipped tobacco made and sold by U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co -- which Altria acquired in 2009. The deal was struck before the acquisition. A spokesperson for Altria says this was a special situation, honoring the prior deal, and the tobacco giant does not plan to settle any other pending cases.
The plaintiff's attorney said that Altria came to table due to damning documents obtained in the course of the litigation. Some of the memos show the company scheming to market chewing tobacco to children as young as 15 years old. Chewing tobacco contains 28 cancer causing chemicals, and the link between dipping and chewing and cancers of the mouth and throat is well known.
Hill's attorney says he thinks Altria decided to settle because they weighed the risk of having to pay a larger judgment if the case went to trial. The case was filed in Stamford, Connecticut because of its close proximity to US Tobacco's headquarters in Greenwich and because North Carolina is a pure contributory negligence state. It would be difficult to pursue one of these cases in North Carolina because if a jury finds a plaintiff to be even 1% at fault then the plaintiff can not recover any compensation. I have discussed the challenges created by the contributory negligence doctrine in prior posts.
It would be hard to argue that someone who dipped skoal was not at least partially at fault for their situation. In a jurisdiction that follows comparative negligence, the plaintiff can be up to 49% at fault and still make a recovery. In a comparative jurisdiction, the jury's verdict is reduced by the percentage of fault attributed to the plaintiff.
Now that these harmful documents are out in the open, this author predicts that we will see more smokeless tobacco settlements in the future. Hopefully, this settlement will shed some much needed light on the very real dangers of smokeless tobacco.
Davis Law Group handles product liability and wrongful death cases throughout North Carolina.