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Big Tobacco Wins One

The tobacco industry is not liable in the cancer death of a nonsmoking nurse who worked at a veteran's hospital where smoking was allowed, a jury decided Thursday.

The jury of six nonsmokers said that cigarettes were not a defective product and that their makers were not negligent for failing to tell people that secondhand cigarette smoke was dangerous.

The woman's widower, Philip Wiley, filed the wrongful death civil suit against tobacco companies and industry groups after doctors said secondhand smoke at the veteran's hospital where his wife, Mildred, had worked for 17 years likely caused her lung cancer.

"I was so disappointed with the verdict but it will have to stand," Wiley said outside the courtroom.

Asked what he would tell his wife, Wiley said: "I'm so sorry that we lost the battle but we fought a good fight."

Joe Young, one of Wiley's attorneys, said that despite the verdict, the trial accomplished some of what the plaintiff had wanted.

"The cause does not end. We filed the lawsuit back in 1993 to let the public know the dangers of secondhand smoke," he said.

Attorneys for both sides said Wiley's suit marked the first time a wrongful death case blamed on secondhand smoke had gone to trial. About 100 similar cases are pending in the nation's courts.

However, Bill Ohlemeyer, lead defense attorney, said Wiley's suit was possibly the best chance for plaintiffs to win a case against the tobacco industry.

"This was a case they'd been talking about as the best case for them," he said.

"The only explanation for this verdict is that the jury found that environmental tobacco smoke is not a cause of lung cancer or cigarettes are not a defective product," said Jeffrey Furr, another defense attorney.

The sequestered Delaware County Superior Court jury deliberated about 19 hours over two days. The trial entered its sixth week Monday in Muncie, about 60 miles northeast of Indianapolis.

Wiley's suit had asked for $13.3 million in compensatory damages for the loss of his 56-year-old wife's love and companionship and punitive damages to punish tobacco companies for their alleged misconduct. Plaintiffs cannot specify punitive damages under Indiana's wrongful death law.

Attorneys for Wiley, 65, spent a month trying to prove that Mrs. Wiley's cancer started in her lung and that secondhand smoke on the psychiatric ward of the hospital in Marion where she worked for 17 years was the largest contributor.

They brought in dozens of witnesses to support the claim, including former coworkers who talked about the thick smoke at the hospital in the 1970s and 1980s, doctors who explained their conclusions Mrs. Wiley had primary lung cancer and former tobacco company officials who said their industry had tried to cover up the dangers of mainstream and secondhand smoke.

Defense attorneys spent just over a week dismantling that contntion, bringing in experts to testify that Mrs. Wiley's cancer likely started in her pancreas and spread throughout her body.

Mrs. Wiley had two massive tumors in her right lung when she died in 1991, her body riddled with cancer.

The case is significant because nearly everyone in the country has been exposed to secondhand smoke. Experts said a finding in Wiley's favor might have opened the door for more regulations, litigation and legislation.

Meanwhile, The tobacco industry continues to dispute the government's contention that there is an irrefutable link between secondhand smoke and disease.

The case followed a recent $349 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed by nonsmoking flight attendants against the tobacco industry.

Written by Ashley H. Grant
©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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