A Florida court has just awarded 300 million dollars to a 61-year-old woman who has been a smoker for many years and now suffers from severe emphysema. Philip Morris, the manufacturer of the cigarettes, has been instructed by the court to pay this woman 56 million dollars in damages and 244 million dollars in punitive damages.
This judgment raise moral as well as practical issues:
On the practical side, even if tobacco companies would be dissolved and all their assets used to pay out compensation to smokers – at this rate of awards, very few of the world’s smokers would get compensation. What is this? First in line takes all? Does not sound very fair to me. Secondly, I fail to understand how a Florida jury, consisting of people whose average annual income is most probably less than $50,000, reaches 56 million dollars in damages for a life of a 61-year-old damaged by emphysema.
On the moral side: the most obvious question is what about the woman’s own responsibility for her life. In the USA, cigarette packages included legal warnings about health damage since 1966! This woman continued to smoke to 1993!
What is even worse is the US notion of punitive damages. If society believes – as very often is the case – that a certain manufacturer ought to be punished for negligence or for criminal behaviour – why should the beneficiary of the penalty be an individual? Let the injured get damages awarded to take care of their injuries and let the state penalize those which the court decides to penalize.
Why is it that, especially in the USA, whenever something goes wrong: a) it is always someone else’s fault, and b) one is always prompted to make money by suing someone? Who are the only ones to really gain? The lawyers. American lawyers drive this system. They have a direct interest in the height of the damages as they get a high percentage of the damages awarded. And since the tobacco company will, in all likelihood, appeal, there is more work and more income for the lawyers. They have created a system that stinks.