NEW HAVEN, Conn. - The maker of Skoal and Copenhagen smokeless tobacco has agreed to pay $5 million to the family of a man who died of mouth cancer in what is believed to be the first wrongful-death settlement from chewing tobacco.
U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co. will pay the award to the family of Bobby Hill, of Canton, N.C., who began chewing tobacco at 13. He died in 2003 at 42.
"This company manufactures and sells a dangerous and defective product that it knows causes addiction, disease and death in consumers who use it as intended," said lawyer Antonio Ponvert III, who represented Hill's relatives.
Steven Callahan, a spokesman for Altria, which acquired U.S. Smokeless Tobacco last year, said that the company does not make any health claims about its products and that it supports programs and laws to reduce underage tobacco use.
Mark Gottlieb, director of the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University, in Boston, said he believes that it's the first case of its kind, and predicted more lawsuits involving smokeless tobacco.
Smokeless-tobacco companies managed to fend off previous lawsuits. In the past, lawyers focused more on cigarette makers because of stronger evidence to back up their claims, even though smokeless tobacco is harmful as well, Gottlieb said.
Ponvert said that his case hadbeen bolstered by previously undisclosed letters from the 1980s that the company had sent to minors thanking them for their business and sending them free samples. The company even sent a can opener to one child to help open the chewing tobacco, he said.
Hill's case also was strong because he was a longtime user of chewing tobacco who did not drink or smoke cigarettes, factors tobacco companies point to as causing the cancer, Ponvert said.
Hill's wife, Kelly, filed the lawsuit in 2005 after her husband died of cancer of the tongue, Ponvert said.
Hill had multiple surgeries to remove his tongue, Ponvert said. Mouth-cancer victims typically lose parts of their mouth, either through surgery or because the tissue wastes away.
"It's a really sad and a really gruesome way to die," Ponvert said.
The settlement comes as the tobacco industry tries to weaken proposals for tougher warning labels on its products and markets chewing tobacco as a less harmful alternative to cigarettes, Ponvert said.