Sunday, May 21, 2006

How Much Does The Oregonian Owe?

From a 1960's Oregonian ad

The Oregonian has an editorial in today's paper entitled "A life up in smoke". The main point of the editorial is that Philip Morris owes a lot more than $168,514 for the death of Michelle Schwarz.

I couldn't find the editorial on their website, so I can't link to it. But, I'll quote it the old fashioned way by typing out the relevant parts--more than I would usually because I can't link to the full editorial. Here are the opening three paragraphs:

Michelle Schwartz of Salem might have 20 or 30 years ahead, if not for the cigarettes that killed her. The one-time nursing student and mother of two might be planning a Memorial Day barbecue right now, or tucking away special cards from Mother's Day, if cancer hadn't stopped her short at age 53.

Her life is worth more than $168,514.

Her killer shouldn't walk away on a technicality.

The technicality referred to is that the judge didn't give a full explanation to jurors about what they could and could not consider in awarding punitive damages. The Oregon Appeals court ruling was explained in an earlier Oregonian article on the case:

A divided Oregon Court of Appeals on Wednesday issued a split decision in a landmark tobacco lawsuit, upholding a jury award of $168,514 in compensatory damages against cigarette maker Philip Morris but reversing $100 million in punitive damages.

The ruling affirmed a Multnomah County jury's 2002 decision that Philip Morris fraudulently marketed low-tar cigarettes as a healthier alternative to ordinary smokes.

But a majority of the court also decided to send the question of punitive damages back for a new trial because the lower court failed to tell the jurors not to punish Philip Morris for conduct that hurt people in other states.

The Oregonian believes that Philip Morris should be heavily punished for its false advertising claims.

The closing sentences of The Oregonian's editorial:

Whatever the outcome, $168,514 isn't enough. Not for Michelle Schwarz, and not for any state where one industry's lies have caused so much pain.

Okay. But if Philip Morris owes, shouldn't purveyors of that advertising like The Oregonian who gained their own tidy profit from buying habits of those like Schwarz owe too? Schwarz would probably never have known about the false or unverified claims except for advertising carried by media like The Oregonian.

I don't know what the answer to just damages is. Two of my grandparents were heavy smokers and both died relatively young of causes that cigarette smoking is linked to. This is not a theoretical issue to me.

Still, I find The Oregonian's strong rhetoric strange coming from a publication that profits daily from advertising lots of products and activities that do not promote a safe and 100% healthy lifestyle--not to mention good reviews of movies, books, games, etc., that make those lifestyles look "cool".

Life is risky. We make choices. Some are good--some are not so good. While Schwarz and my grandparents knew that smoking was not good for them, they chose to continue. Certainly the nicotine addiction pulled them along. But, still they chose. Others quit. They didn't.

Are the tobacco companies without guilt? No. But, is the Oregon Lottery (and the people of Oregon who authorized it) without guilt for the lives ruined by gambling? No. There are bad consequences to a lot of money making ventures.

Life is more complicated than the finger pointing approach The Oregonian takes in this editorial. If Philip Morris is the "killer" here, media like The Oregonian has certainly been an accessory to the killing.


Dan said...

Great take on this Terrance. What's worse is how states have behaved in this tobacco controversy. They made cigarettes legal and they taxed the heck out of them raising billions over the years. Then, when there was blood in the water, the states come back and sue the tobacco companies over thier dangerous products so the states can recoup health care money losses. Its hypocrisy no matter who is doing it.

terrance said...


You are exactly right. The state makes lots of money via "sin taxes". It seems that the concern is raised only when, as you note, they can get more.

Thanks for making this point.

: JustaDog said...

It was not Philip Morris that killed her - Michelle Schwartz killed Michelle Schwartz. It is just the liberal style of blaming others.

Michelle Schwartz was a nurse, which means she had some measure of education of the human body. It does not take an MD to know breathing smoke into your lungs is not health. Michelle Schwartz bought her cigarettes. Michelle Schwartz put them one-by-one into her mouth. Michelle Schwartz lit each Michelle Schwartz and inhaled.

To blame a company for a person's choice when it comes to health matters is abusrd. This is the same type of irresponsible behaviour that fat people have with fast food outlets.


: JustaDog said...

HOWEVER - there should be accountability for a cigarette company that sells something of no nutritional value, that promotes the destruction of the human body, that releases poisonous gases into the air and poses a health hazard to anyone nearby.

Now if a person made that choice to smoke and the cigarette company supplied a plastic (biodegradable) bag that person would have to wear while smoking, then perhaps that would be ok. But the manufacturer makes the choice to make a cheap smoke that, sadly, has a big negative impact on the person smoking, anyone next to the person, as well as the environment.

terrance said...

Thanks for your comments, justadog.

As you can tell from my post, I agree with you that people make bad choices, and they have to take responsibility for those bad choices--even when it's very hard to undo them.

And I agree that people who make (or promote) harmful products have some degree of liability for the damage they cause. Still, collateral damage to innocent bystanders seems harder to justify than damage to the actual user.

Life is risky for users and bystanders. I think the standard we should use for negligence should be similar to the standard we use for slander and libel regarding public persons. There should have to be clear evidence that there was malice or reckless disregard for the truth.

The easy suing we have today is a brake on innovation (e.g., in development of drugs and health treatments) and flies in the face of common sense.

It has already changed how we and our children live. As a child I used to roam wide and free and visit "attractive nuisances". That's gone for much of this generation. There are lots more fences and a lot less daily adventures.