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First wrongful death settlement from chewing tobacco won by plaintiff

Tue, Dec 7, 2010

Oral Cancer News

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — A smokeless tobacco company has agreed to pay $5 million to the family of a man who died of mouth cancer in what the family’s attorney and an expert called the first wrongful death settlement from chewing tobacco.

Attorney Antonio Ponvert III told The Associated Press on Tuesday that U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co. agreed to pay $5 million to the family of Bobby Hill of Canton, N.C.

“This company manufactures and sells a dangerous and defective product that it knows causes addiction, disease and death in consumers who use it as intended,” Ponvert said.

The company, which makes Copenhagen and Skoal brands and was headquartered in Greenwich, Conn. before it was acquired by Altria last year, confirmed the settlement in a regulatory filing, but declined further comment.

Mark Gottlieb, director of the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern School of Law in Boston, said he believes it’s the first case of its kind and predicted more lawsuits involving smokeless tobacco.

“I think this is sort of a wakeup call to the plaintiff’s bar that there are a lot of victims of smokeless tobacco use out there and it’s possible these cases can be successful,” Gottlieb said.

Past lawsuits against smokeless tobacco makers were not successful and lawyers focused more on cigarette makers due to stronger evidence to back up their claims even though smokeless tobacco is harmful as well, Gottlieb said.

“The cigarette is sort of the dirty needle of nicotine delivery,” Gottlieb said.

Tobacco companies have traditionally vigorously fought such lawsuits, Gottlieb said.

“So this is an unusual instance and runs counter to what had been the sort of the playbook for tobacco litigation,” Gottlieb said. “I think that’s one of the things that makes this wrongful death settlement intriguing. Perhaps there is a new strategy afoot in terms of dealing with some of these types of cases.”

But Gottlieb quickly added that Altria may have wanted to resolve legal issues remaining from its acquisition and calculated it was cheaper to settle than risk a larger award at trial.

Hill’s wife, Kelly, filed the lawsuit in 2005 after her husband died of cancer of the tongue, Ponvert said. Hill was 42 and had been chewing the company’s spit tobacco products since he was 13, he said.

Hill’s wife declined to comment through her attorney.

The settlement came as the tobacco industry tries to weaken proposed tougher warning labels on tobacco products and is marketing spit tobacco as a less harmless alternative to cigarettes, Ponvert said.

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