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No Product Liability in Fire Hazard of Cigarettes

(CN) - Philip Morris is not liable for a fire that killed a woman who fell asleep before putting out her cigarette, a Boston federal judge ruled.

Linda Rivers started smoking Marlboro cigarettes and drinking alcohol in 1968 at age 13. By 2004, she smoked two packs of Marlboros a day and was an alcoholic. Rivers got drunk almost every day, and regularly drank until she fell asleep, often while smoking, according to court records.

Drunk and high on barbiturates in December 2004, Rivers fell asleep while smoking a cigarette in the Revere, Mass., home she co-owned with a cousin, Rosalie Sarro. Eventually the cigarette ignited a fire in the bedroom, killing Rivers and damaging the house.

On behalf of Rivers' estate, Sarro sued Philip Morris USA, alleging that the company wantonly advertised its cigarettes to minors before July 1968, leading to Rivers' cigarette addiction and death.

U.S. District Judge Mark Wolf granted Philip Morris summary judgment last week.

"On or before July 31, 1968, Philip Morris advertised and sold Marlboro cigarettes in the United States, intending to cultivate a loyal customer base," he wrote. "Cigarettes are now known to be an addictive product, but in the 1960s Philip Morris knew only that cigarette smoking was habit-forming."

"Philip Morris can be held liable only if the evidence is sufficient to prove that prior to July 31, 1968, it knew, or had reason to know, of facts creating a high degree or risk of physical harm to others," he added.

"There is no evidence that, in marketing and selling Marlboro cigarettes prior to July 31, 1968, Philip Morris was or should have been aware of a high degree of probability that Rivers, or any other smoker, would develop an addiction, smoke while impaired, and consequently die or be seriously injured by a fire started by a cigarette," the 17-page decision states.

"The evidence is only adequate to prove that Philip Morris now 'is aware that there have been public reports of fires allegedly caused by impaired smokers who carelessly discarded lit cigarettes' and that Philip Morris 'admits that it, as well as the general public, has always been aware that the careless use of cigarettes can be a fire hazard because anything that burns, if handled carelessly, can cause a fire.'" (Emphasis in original)

Referring to other cases of wanton conduct, Wolf said that, "in this case, no evidence has been presented to prove that cigarettes, like heroin or speeding trains in residential neighborhoods, are inherently or unreasonably dangerous because of the risk of causing fires that would seriously injure or kill people who smoke while drunk."

"Similarly, there is no evidence that Philip Morris was, or should have been, aware of any such risk of dangerousness on or before July 31, 1968," he wrote. "It is possible that such evidence exists somewhere. However, it has not been presented in this case."

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