A Florida jury Friday awarded three smokers $12.7 million to compensate them for pain, suffering, medical expenses and lost wages due to smoking.
That figure will be multiplied to cover an estimated half-million Florida smokers in the next phase of the trial, the first smokers' class-action suit ever to come to trial.
The tobacco industry fears that the compensatory damages announced Friday could be dwarfed by a ruinous $300 billion award in the next phase, seeking punitive damages for an estimated 500,000 sick smokers.
Friday, the jury awarded $2.85 million to nurse Mary Farnan, $4.02 million to the husband of the late Angie Della Vecchia and $5.83 million to woodworker Frank Amodeo.
In Amodeo's case, the jury also ruled that he should be barred from collecting the money because a four-year statute of limitations had expired on his claim.
Circuit Judge Robert Kaye said he would decide later how to handle that award, given the jury's conflicting ruling.
The jury deliberated for a little more than two days in the latest chapter of a trial that began in October 1998.
Testimony in the compensatory phase began last November.
Both women started smoking at age 11. Della Vecchia smoked for 40 years and Farnan for 29. Amodeo started smoking at 14 and kept it up for 34 years.
The plaintiffs cited old television commercials, like one in which an adolescent bellhop asked viewers, "Have you tried Philip Morris lately? Believe me, it's a great cigarette."
Smokers' attorney Stanley Rosenblatt argued all three smokers became addicted in the 1950s -- long before they became aware of the health dangers of smoking.
Plaintiff Frank Amodeo, who hasn't eaten food in 13 years, said "The cancer killed my throat. It destroyed the tissues in the back of my throat. It destroyed all the mobility in my throat."
Last summer, the jury decided that the industry fraudulently conspired to produce a dangerous, addictive product that caused 29 illnesses, including cancer and heart disease.
The defendants are Philip Morris Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Brown & Williamson, Lorillard Tobacco Co., Liggett Group Inc. and the industry's Council for Tobacco Research and Tobacco Intitute.
"We're looking forward to trying the next phase of this case," said Dan Webb, the lead tobacco attorney in the case. "We have never believed this jury would award a large amount of damages to thousands of unidentified smokers."
The judge and attorneys scheduled a closed-door session Monday to determine the next step.
The smokers' attorneys hope to begin the third phase of the trial as soon as possible, but the industry wants to delay until mid-May.
The tobacco companies also could appeal the damage award before the punitive phase beginswith the same six jurors who ruled against them Friday.
Under Florida law, a punitive verdict cannot put a company out of business.
Around the United States, juries have awarded damages to individual smokers only six times. Three verdicts were overturned, two are on appeal, and one was returned last month with a record $1.72 million compensatory award to a single smoker.
The industry has yet to pay anything in a smoker's case but has started paying on $246 billion in settlements with states.