Tobacco giant Philip Morris was ordered by a Florida jury to pay US$8m (€6.3m) in damages to the widow of a smoker who died of lung cancer in a case that could set a precedent for around 8,000 other state lawsuits.
The six jurors deliberated over two days before returning the award for Elaine Hess (aged 63), whose chain-smoking husband Stuart (aged 55) died in 1997.
The award comprises $3m (€2.3m) in compensatory damages and $5 (€4m) in punitive damages against Richmond, Virginia-based Philip Morris USA. Mrs Hess's lawyers had sought up to $130m (€102.8m).
"It wasn't about the money from the beginning," Mrs Hess said after the verdict. "It was about doing the right thing. I just really hope this can help all the thousands of families who have also suffered."
The Hess case was the first to go to trial since 2006 when the Florida Supreme Court threw out a £102bn (€80.6bn) class-action jury award in the so-called Engle case, by far the highest punitive damage award in US history.
The court said each smoker's case had to be decided individually, but let stand that jury's findings that tobacco companies knowingly sold dangerous products and hid risks from the public.
To be included in those findings, smokers or their families had to file individual lawsuits by January 11 last year.
Philip Morris parent company Altria, issued a statement yesterday, calling the Florida legal procedure "profoundly flawed" and predicted the damage awards would be reduced or thrown out on appeal.
"We plan to challenge the verdict in the trial court and, if necessary, on appeal," said Murray Garnick, an Altria Client Services vice president and associate general counsel.
"We do not believe today's verdict is predictive of the outcome of future cases."
The next case begins today before Broward County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Streitfeld, the local self-styled "tobacco judge" who has about 350 tobacco trials on his docket. Others are pending throughout the state.
The Hess trial, which began on February 3, included video of the widely discredited 1994 testimony before the US Congress in which top executives of the major tobacco companies, including Philip Morris, denied that smoking was addictive.
The jury in the Hess case previously found that Stuart Hess was hopelessly addicted, even as Philip Morris lawyers pointed to evidence that he was capable of giving up.
However, the jury did find that Mr Hess was 58% responsible for the cigarette addiction that led to his death and if Philip Morris wins an appeal, that could cut the compensatory damage award from three million to about $1.3m (€1m).