Case of Cigarettes with Asbestos Filters Still Unsettled after 60 Years
A jury in Broward County, Florida, last month ordered Lorillard Tobacco (2012 rev.: $6.6 billion) to pay more than $3.5 million in damages to Richard Delisle, a former smoker whose lawsuit was not based on the typical dangers of cigarettes, but on the fact that the Kent cigarettes he had smoked were laced with asbestos, which causes mesothelioma. The asbestos was present in about 13 billion Kents, which were sold between March 1952 and May 1956 with Lorillard’s patented “Micronite” filter, which was made out of cotton, acetate, crepe paper and a particularly virulent form of asbestos called crocidolite.
Although Lorillard claims it got the idea of using crocidolite in its filters based on its use in gas masks made for the Army, filter manufacturer Hollingsworth & Vose (H&V) was so concerned about liability that it forced Lorillard to take sole responsibility for any “harmful effects” of the filters.
Worried about growing public concern that cigarettes cause health problems, Lorillard launched the Kent brand by touting the Micronite filter as offering “the greatest health protection in cigarette history.” One advertisement misleadingly defined Micronite as “a pure, dust-free, completely harmless material,” some ads emphasized that Kents relied on the latest in modern technology, while ads aimed at physicians advised the Micronite filter for “patients whom you have felt obliged to advise to cut down or cut out smoking.”
Internal corporate documents, meanwhile, reveal that executives had good reason to believe the opposite. As early as April 1954, Lorillard researchers admitted to company president W.J. Halley that “traces of mineral fiber” were present in the smoke requiring “a program of attempting to work out a method for the[ir] elimination.” Within five months, an H&V official likewise wrote of the need “to find a way of anchoring asbestos…All efforts are to be exerted to solve the asbestos-dust-in-Kent smoke problem.” (emphasis added.)
Just two months later, H&V president A.K. Nicholson conceded “Lorillard’s belief that asbestos must be eliminated from the Kent cigarette as soon as possible,” although his memo absurdly blamed “a whispering campaign started by their competitors of the harmful effects of asbestos.” Therefore, H&V would “discontinue that part of our research program devoted to the fixing of asbestos fibres and direct the entire attention of the program toward the complete elimination of asbestos.”
Despite the consensus reached among its researchers and those of H&V, Lorillard said nothing publicly about the risks of Micronite filters, kept using asbestos in them for another 16 months, and continued to sell existing stocks of Kents for several more months after that.
Given that history, it is not surprising that Lorillard has faced—and settled—many liability lawsuits by former smokers like Richard Delisle, but it is unexpected that Lorillard and H&V have won 17 of 23 such cases that went to trial. “They litigate hard,” said Timothy F. Pearce, who won a filter case in 2011. “It’s no small undertaking to be in a trial with them,” he said. “They had, like, 13 lawyers” working on the case.
Lorillard pursues a two-pronged approach to win the filter cases. Despite the statements in the company documents, company summaries of testing done at the time revealed “very, very low,” exposure to asbestos, as Lorillard science executive Kevin H. Reinert testified in a deposition, also claiming not to “believe it increased the risk.” Because Lorillard destroyed the original test reports, Plaintiffs have to rely on the corporate summaries. Lorillard has also hired aggressive private investigators who try to undermine claims that a given smoker actually puffed Kents between 1952 and 1956, and also to dig up dirt to damage witness credibility.
To Learn More:
Legal Battles Smolder Six Decades After ‘the Greatest Health Protection in Cigarette History’ (by Myron Levin, FairWarning)
Why is U.S. Still Importing Asbestos? (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
Corporate Executives Sentenced to Prison for Asbestos Deaths: Could it Happen in U.S.? (by David Wallechinsky and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
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