Originally created 03/10/01

Tobacco company pays in liability case



JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - In 1996, Grady Carter made history when a Jacksonville jury awarded him what was then the highest award given in a tobacco product liability case.

On Thursday, the 70-year-old Orange Park resident made history again when he became the first smoker paid by a tobacco company for a tobacco-related illness.

Although several people have won lawsuits against tobacco companies, lengthy appeals have stalled payments.

But Mr. Carter received $1,087,000 from a trust account that contained the $750,000 jury verdict plus interest in his case against Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.

Whether Mr. Carter would have to pay attorney fees out of the money he received Friday has not been decided. A separate ruling on the matter is pending.

"Brown & Williamson paid the $750,000, but I paid with a lung because of their product," Mr. Carter said at a news conference. "I felt all along we had a good case. I'm the kind of guy that never gives up. I'm going to hang on, kind of like a little bulldog."

A smoker since he was 16 or 17 years old, Mr. Carter was diagnosed with lung cancer 10 years ago. He filed the lawsuit in 1995 and has been wrapped up in hearings and appeals since.

On Wednesday, Mr. Carter's attorneys received a Florida Supreme Court decision in which the court denied the tobacco company's effort to keep from paying the money while it prepared to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

"I think a lot of people have never believed that the cigarette industry would be made to pay," said Norwood "Woody" Wilner, an attorney for Mr. Carter.

Representatives of Brown & Williamson are downplaying the decision's impact, saying it will have no influence on how the company handles other tobacco-related lawsuits.

The only appeal left for the tobacco giant is to go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, which grants 100 to 175 of the 7,000 to 8,000 petitions the court receives per term from attorneys.

"We're confident that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear our case and overturn the Florida high court's decision," said Steve Kottak, manager of corporate communications with the Louisville, Ky., company. "We're prepared to defend ourselves in future lawsuits."

If the U.S. Supreme Court decides to hear the case and rules in favor of the tobacco company, Brown & Williamson's Jacksonville attorney, Robert Parrish, said Mr. Carter would be required to pay back the money he received.

Mr. Wilner downplays that, saying Mr. Carter is free to spend his money whenever he likes.

Mr. Carter and his wife, Mildred, said they are considering using some of it to help with anti-smoking campaigns.

Ten years after being diagnosed with lung cancer, Mr. Carter said he's in good health, although he has problems breathing and uses inhalers.

A former air traffic controller, Mr. Carter hasn't made any definite plans for the money, saying he plans to continue living as he has been, playing golf and enjoying retirement.

For the Jacksonville law firm of Spohrer Wilner Maxwell & Matthews, Friday's payment was a big accomplishment. Most law firms don't have the financial backing to take on a corporate giant like Brown & Williamson.

The tobacco companies are known for waging long exhaustive appeals that can drive most law firms into bankruptcy.

"We will never recover our time monetarily, but there comes a time in everyone's career when it's time to give something back," said Mr. Wilner, who estimates his firm has spent $4 million to $5 million on the Carter case. "It's been worth every penny."

"We will never recover our time monetarily, but there comes a time in everyone's career when it's time to give something back. It's been worth every penny."- Norwood "Woody" Wilner, an attorney for Grady Carter, the first smoker paid by a tobacco company for a tobacco-related illness