Cancer death lawsuit goes up in smoke

Nurse's family blames occupational exposure

The family of a nurse who died of cancer was denied more than $6.5 billion in damages it sought on the grounds that she was the victim of second-hand cigarette smoke at work.

Mildred Wiley, who died at age 56 in 1991, had worked for 17 years in the psychiatric and hospice units at a Veterans' Administration hospital in Marion, IN. Witnesses at the six-week trial testified that smoking on the units was so constant that caked-on smoke residue had to be removed from the walls with cleaning agents.1

Attorneys for Wiley's family had argued that they were owed more than $6.5 billion in punitive damages and $13 million in compensatory damages. Defendants in the case were tobacco industry companies RJ Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Phillip Morris, Liggett Group, American Tobacco, and Lorillard Tobacco, as well as the Tobacco Institute and the Council for Tobacco Research.

The six-member jury's decision is considered a victory for the tobacco industry, which was found not liable for Wiley's cancer death. Defense attorneys contended that Wiley, a nonsmoker, died from pancreatic cancer - unrelated to cigarette smoke - that later spread to her lungs. They argued that an anti-tobacco physician deliberately misdiagnosed her with lung cancer.

Another case in which defendants claimed occupational exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke was settled last October. In that class-action suit, flight attendants received $349 million four months into a trial in which they claimed they were made ill by second-hand smoke aboard planes.


1. Penticuff D. U.S. jury finds industry not liable in second-hand smoke case. Reuters; March 19, 1998.