NEW HAVEN, Conn. - The maker of Skoal and Copenhagen smokeless tobacco 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 won from a chewing-tobacco company.
A legal expert said the case could open the door for more lawsuits against makers of chewing tobacco, an industry that drew fewer legal battles during the 1990s than cigarette manufacturers did.
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.
Attorney Antonio Ponvert III, who represented Hill's relatives, disclosed the deal Tuesday, and regulatory documents confirmed it.
Steven Callahan, a spokesman for Altria, which acquired U.S. Smokeless Tobacco last year, said the company admitted no liability and made no health claims on its products.
Ponvert and Mark Gottlieb, director of the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University in Boston, both said the settlement was the first case of its kind.
Gottlieb called the settlement "a wakeup call" to plaintiffs' attorneys "that there are a lot of victims of smokeless-tobacco use out there."
Smokeless-tobacco companies managed to fend off most previous lawsuits. In the past, lawyers focused more on cigarette companies because of stronger evidence to back up their claims, even though smokeless tobacco is harmful as well, Gottlieb said.
Callahan said the case involved unique circumstances because it was a settlement offer made before Altria acquired the company. "We have no intention of settling cases like this in the future," he said.
Ponvert said his case was bolstered by previously undisclosed letters from the 1980s that the company sent to minors thanking them for their business and offering free samples. It even sent a can opener to a child to help open the chewing tobacco, he said.
Hill had multiple surgeries to remove his tongue. Mouth-cancer victims typically lose parts of their mouth, either through surgery or because the tissue wastes away.