Tobacco firms win US hospitals case


Tobacco companies aren't liable to Missouri hospitals for money spent on patients with smoking- related illnesses who couldn't pay their medical bills, a jury in St Louis in the United States has said.

About 40 Missouri hospitals sued Altria Group Inc's Philip Morris unit, RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co, Lorillard Tobacco Co and other cigarette makers in 1998, claiming they manipulated the nicotine content in cigarettes and misrepresented the health effects of smoking.

The hospitals were seeking more than $455 million in damages, ranging from about $300,000 for some to $86.4 million for the Truman Medical Centre in Kansas City.

The industry's actions boosted spending for unreimbursed and uncompensated tobacco-related health care, the hospitals claimed. The tobacco companies denied any responsibility for patient-care costs at the hospitals or any financial losses by the hospitals.

The state-court jury in St Louis today rejected the hospitals' claims on a 9-3 vote in the seventh day of deliberations.

"The jury correctly rejected the entirety of the hospital's claims," Murray Garnick, Altria Client Services' associate general counsel, said in a statement.

The jury agreed with Philip Morris "that ordinary cigarettes are not negligently designed or defective," he said.

The verdict "shows common sense," Dal Burton, Reynolds lawyer, said in an interview. "It shows that our product is not defective just because it contains nicotine."

The hospitals haven't decided whether to appeal, said their attorney Kenneth Brostron. "We have to evaluate and we have to talk to our clients," he said in an interview.

"We'll talk to the jurors and see what the issues were. We thought we made our case."

The case is the third such health-care cost-recovery claim to reach trial, according to regulatory filings by Altria. The industry won the first, in Ohio, in 1999. The second initially resulted in a $17.8 million award for a health insurer by a New York jury in 2001.

That was reversed on appeal in 2004. The Missouri suit, which didn't include patients as plaintiffs, went to trial in January. The tobacco companies "sell their defective products here and they take their money back to North Carolina, Virginia or wherever," Mr Brostron, a lawyer for the hospitals, said on April 13th in closing arguments in St Louis.

"They are responsible for what they did and it's about time they take responsibility."

The hospitals, which provide care to indigent and non- paying patients, represent the majority of licensed, adult acute-care hospital beds in Missouri, according to the complaint. The hospitals said medical ethics require them to serve people in need regardless of their ability to pay.

Tobacco companies should reimburse the hospitals for care provided to patients who are unable to pay and are suffering from tobacco-related illness, the plaintiffs said.

Hospitals also should "recover the increased costs incurred to providing all health-care services" as a result of tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke, according to the complaint.

"Hospitals didn't lose money on smokers," Diane Sullivan, an attorney for Philip Morris, said in her closing argument April 14th. "Hospitals make money off our bad habits."