First Monetary Damages Are Awarded to the Estate of a Cigarette Smoker Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

For the first time in U.S. history, a jury awarded damages to a cigarette smoker who had suffered from health problems caused by long-term smoking, marking a major turning point in public policy regarding the tobacco industry.

Summary of Event

Not long after the early 1950’s, when reports first linked smoking to lung cancer, smokers began to sue the tobacco industry for the expenses of cigarette-related diseases. More than three hundred lawsuits were filed against tobacco companies between 1954 and 1988, but not one resulted in payment of monetary damages. This was largely because tobacco executives were spending millions on lobbying, public relations, and legal defense, and none of the individual plaintiffs had the resources for prolonged court battles. Oddly, a 1964 antismoking campaign requiring warning labels on all cigarette packages added to the industry’s sense of invulnerability. The tobacco industry took the position that since consumers were thus alerted to the potential dangers of tobacco, anyone who chose to smoke was fully responsible for the consequences. Many Americans agreed, including the courts, and for decades there seemed little point in attempting a lawsuit. Then, on June 13, 1988, a federal district court jury awarded the first monetary damages for a cigarette-related disease in Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc. Tobacco Lawsuits;tobacco industry Cancer;tobacco use Smoking;lawsuits Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc. (1988) Liggett Group [kw]First Monetary Damages Are Awarded to the Estate of a Cigarette Smoker (June 13, 1988) [kw]Monetary Damages Are Awarded to the Estate of a Cigarette Smoker, First (June 13, 1988) [kw]Cigarette Smoker, First Monetary Damages Are Awarded to the Estate of a (June 13, 1988) [kw]Smoker, First Monetary Damages Are Awarded to the Estate of a Cigarette (June 13, 1988) Tobacco Lawsuits;tobacco industry Cancer;tobacco use Smoking;lawsuits Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc. (1988) Liggett Group [g]North America;June 13, 1988: First Monetary Damages Are Awarded to the Estate of a Cigarette Smoker[06810] [g]United States;June 13, 1988: First Monetary Damages Are Awarded to the Estate of a Cigarette Smoker[06810] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 13, 1988: First Monetary Damages Are Awarded to the Estate of a Cigarette Smoker[06810] [c]Marketing and advertising;June 13, 1988: First Monetary Damages Are Awarded to the Estate of a Cigarette Smoker[06810] Cipollone, Rose Edell, Marc Koop, C. Everett Sarokin, H. Lee

Rose Cipollone, the plaintiff in the case, had started smoking at the age of sixteen in the 1940’s and was diagnosed with cancer in 1981. Doctors removed part of her right lung in 1982 and the remaining part a year later. Even after surgery, Cipollone was unable to quit smoking. Facing death, she wished to prevent others from making the same mistake. She asked attorney Marc Edell to represent her in a product liability suit against the three tobacco companies that manufactured the brands she had smoked: Philip Morris, Lorillard, and the Liggett Group. Edell warned her that suits against the tobacco industry had financially ruined many plaintiffs, but he believed he could prove that the industry had intentionally conspired to conceal vital evidence of the dangers of smoking. He filed Cipollone’s lawsuit in 1983 and grew increasingly committed to the case as her health continued to deteriorate. She died in 1984, but Edell pursued the case.

In the years leading up to the trial, public opinion on smoking began to shift, partly owing to the efforts of U.S. surgeon general C. Everett Koop. On taking office in 1982, Koop learned that cigarettes were responsible for about 400,000 deaths per year and more than 30 percent of all cancer deaths. In fact, cigarette smoking fatalities far surpassed the number of deaths attributed to car accidents, drug abuse, and alcoholism combined. When Koop published reports to that effect, the tobacco industry countered with a public relations campaign challenging or dismissing his findings. The disgusted surgeon general redoubled his efforts on a massive antismoking campaign.

Even before the Cipollone trial began, its key issues came to the fore. U.S. district court judge H. Lee Sarokin dismissed the cases against Philip Morris and Lorillard prior to the trial because Cipollone had smoked their products after mandatory warning labels appeared on cigarette packs. However, the judge was outspoken about the responsibility of the tobacco industry for the health of its consumers and in a pivotal ruling stated that the label warnings did not in themselves protect the industry from liability for a harmful product. He crossed the tobacco industry on the subject of company documents as well. Up to that point, internal documents had been protected. Nevertheless, Edell requested access to hundreds of thousands of Liggett’s internal documents, and Sarokin granted the access. Liggett appealed, claiming that the release of its internal documents could financially damage the company, but an appeals court upheld Sarokin’s decision. The defense claimed Sarokin was biased against the tobacco industry and tried, unsuccessfully, to have him removed from the case.

Cipollone v. Liggett went to trial in January, 1988. Edell focused on the Liggett Group’s advertisements, such as “Play safe—smoke Chesterfields” and “Just what the doctor ordered,” which he claimed had led Cipollone to believe her cigarettes were safe. Advertising;tobacco Edell also claimed that Cipollone’s addiction to cigarettes had made it impossible for her to make a rational decision about smoking, arguing that the tobacco industry was responsible for her addiction. He produced about two hundred industry documents showing that the tobacco executives had known the dangers of smoking and addiction since the 1950’s and had made a sophisticated effort to cover up the scientific data, intentionally misleading smokers. Most of the documents Edell produced had never been seen by the public.

The defense team countered by attempting to show that the lung cancer that had killed Cipollone was not the type of cancer related to smoking (an odd defense, given that the industry continued to claim that no cancer could be linked conclusively to smoking). The defense attorneys also held that Cipollone had chosen to smoke; therefore, the consequences of smoking were her own responsibility.

In its decision, the jury agreed that Cipollone was largely responsible for her own smoking habit and that the tobacco industry had not fraudulently conspired to hide the truth. However, the jury also held the Liggett Group responsible for a portion of Cipollone’s illness because of its misleading advertisements, thus awarding her husband $400,000 in damages. Liggett appealed, and the financial award was overturned in 1992.

As the tobacco industry had feared, Cipollone opened the door for a deluge of lawsuits, marking the onset of the “tobacco wars,” the intense conflict between antismoking advocates and the tobacco industry that took place mainly in courtrooms during the 1990’s. The stakes in this battle were high on both sides. Links between smoking and deadly disease were by then well established, and the costs to the population were heavy. Nevertheless, along with its immense corporate powers, the tobacco industry had a long history and deep roots. It supported hundreds of thousands of workers and was a key factor in the economies of several states.


In the lawsuits following Cipollone, the tobacco industry lost credibility when tens of thousands of its internal documents were released either by court order or by concerned whistle-blowers. Beyond exposing the industry’s deliberate cover-up, the documents revealed that cigarette companies had tampered with nicotine levels in cigarettes, ensuring consumers’ addiction. Documents also showed that the industry had been intentionally targeting teens in their ad campaigns. In 1994, during a televised session of a U.S. House of Representatives committee investigation into tobacco, the heads of several large tobacco companies swore that they believed their products were not addictive. Many Americans found it impossible to believe them.

It took money and power to fight the industry, and that came from two arenas. Large law firms began to organize class-action suits, such as Castano v. American Tobacco Company (1994), Castano v. American Tobacco Company (1994) which included nearly ninety million plaintiffs, and various government agencies took on the fight as well. In the mid-1990’s, the attorneys general of Mississippi, Florida, and Texas sued the tobacco industry for reimbursement of Medicaid expenses due to cigarette-related disease. Other states soon followed. In 1996, the Liggett Group buckled under the pressure and settled with twenty-two states, becoming the first company in the industry to admit responsibility for national health problems related to smoking. In June, 1997, the tobacco industry as a whole agreed to a settlement with forty states in the amount of $368.5 billion to be paid over twenty-five years. Although the industry later backed out of the agreement, “big tobacco” had finally admitted that cigarettes were dangerous and addictive, and it agreed to change some of its misleading practices.

Lawsuits against the industry continued into the 2000’s, including a huge and expensive Department of Justice civil suit that concluded without great effect in 2006. Though the tobacco wars had made the industry vulnerable, the largest surviving tobacco companies remained powerful and profitable. Tobacco Lawsuits;tobacco industry Cancer;tobacco use Smoking;lawsuits Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc. (1988) Liggett Group

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hilts, Philip J. Smokescreen: The Truth Behind the Tobacco Industry Cover-Up. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1996. Chronicle of the tobacco industry’s conspiracy to mislead its consumers, written by a reporter for The New York Times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kessler, David A. A Question of Intent: A Great American Battle with a Deadly Industry. New York: PublicAffairs, 2002. Former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration discusses the FDA’s battle against tobacco.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kluger, Richard. Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Comprehensive history of tobacco in the United States from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth century. Provides a detailed look at the tobacco industry, the health problems it has caused the nation, and its conspiracy to mislead Americans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mollenkamp, Carrick, Joseph Karl Menn, Adam Levy, and Joseph Menn. The People vs. Big Tobacco: How the States Took On the Big Giants. Princeton, N.J.: Bloomberg Press, 1998. Lively chronicle of events leading up to the tobacco industry’s agreement to the $368.5 billion settlement of 1997.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pringle, Peter. Cornered: Big Tobacco and the Bar of Justice. New York: Henry Holt, 1998. Readable account of the legal wars against the tobacco industry between 1992 and 1996.

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Categories: History