Ex-smoker is awarded $3.2-million
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- John Eastman started smoking when he was 12. It was the 1940s, and smoking was as American as baseball. Cigarette ads dominated the radio, and the boy who wanted a career on the airwaves couldn't miss them.
As an adult, Eastman smoked four packs a day. He failed at every effort to quit.
"I was addicted," said Eastman, 74, a former radio personality once known as Tampa Bay's dean of talk radio. "The cigarette companies were handing me a deadly instrument and they weren't telling me."
On Thursday, a Pinellas County jury agreed. After a four-week trial and two days of deliberations, the jurors handed Eastman $3.26-million in damages for the cigarettes he says caused his emphysema and an aortic aneurysm.
The verdict against Philip Morris USA and the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., which made the cigarettes Eastman smoked until he quit in 1995, is the largest-ever tobacco award in the Tampa Bay area.
"I'm very grateful for the jury's decision," Eastman said afterward, sitting in an electric scooter that carries him and his oxygen around. "If there's anything just in society, I'll live to see them pay."
Both companies say they plan to appeal the verdict. Even if Eastman wins those appeals, payment could be years away.
The jury found that Eastman was 50 percent at fault for his smoking habit, and cut in half its original award of $6.5-million in compensatory damages and $38,000 in medical damages. The companies' share of the blame was divided roughly by how long Eastman smoked their products: Philip Morris was deemed 40 percent responsible and Brown & Williamson 10 percent.
Jurors, who declined to comment, rejected punitive damages.
"The evidence presented to this jury made it clear that Mr. Eastman chose to smoke cigarettes for almost 50 years with full knowledge of the dangers associated with smoking," said Jeff Raborn, an attorney for Brown & Williamson. Philip Morris representatives, who made similar comments, said they will ask Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Anthony Rondolino to set aside the verdict.
This is by far the largest verdict award against tobacco for Eastman's lead attorney, Howard Acosta, a St. Petersburg lawyer who has tried five cases against Big Tobacco.
Just four tobacco cases have been tried in the Tampa Bay area in recent years. The biggest previous award was $200,000 by a Hillsborough jury, though a judge later threw it out.
The only other Pinellas case to make it to trial involved another of Acosta's clients. Tobacco won that battle, with a jury rejecting all claims of damages.
During trial, Acosta and Eastman's second attorney, Bruce Denson, told jurors that Eastman accepted that he was at least partially responsible. He heard some warnings about the dangers of smoking.
But they said internal company documents showed that the big tobacco companies withheld research clearly demonstrating the link between health problems and cigarettes, even as they advertised the benefits of smoking.
Cigarettes, Acosta said, were made to be addictive.
"Cigarettes have caused millions of deaths," he said in closing arguments. "They knew it. And they chose to do it."
Lawyers for the tobacco companies no longer deny the risks of smoking.
Within weeks, Eastman expects to have an operation to repair his aneurysm. He has a 10 percent chance of dying.
He started working in radio around the Tampa Bay area in 1977, when he replaced Stan Major as host of the original Talk of Tampa Bay on WDAE-AM 1250. By 1989, when he left WTKN-AM 570, he was often referred to as the dean of Tampa Bay talk radio.
Now when he speaks, he must pause to catch his breath. Though grateful for the verdict, he said he wonders if tobacco is being punished enough.
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