Philip Morris Settles Texas Fire Case

Thu October 2, 2003 17:28 EDT

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) _ Philip Morris USA has agreed to pay more than $2 million in the case of a toddler severely burned in a fire blamed on a cigarette left in a car ashtray _ the first time the nation's No. 1 tobacco company has ever settled a personal injury suit.

The settlement was reached in May and was first reported this week by the Los Angeles Times.

Shannon Moore, now 13, was 21 months old at the time of the blaze 11 years ago. She was asleep in her car seat when her mother got out for a quick stop at her grandparents' Fort Worth house and left a burning cigarette in the car. After about 10 minutes the car was in flames, searing her face, ears, torso and hands _ more than three-fourths of her small body.

Philip Morris argued that the fire was started by the car's faulty cigarette lighter but that the child's mother ultimately was to blame, Lynn A. Grisham, the girl's lawyer, said Thursday.

Philip Morris has a history of fighting lawsuits vigorously but settled this case because it was ``unique, isolated and not likely to be replicated,'' said John Sorrells, a spokesman for Altria Group Inc., the parent of Philip Morris USA.

Since the settlement, Philip Morris and three of its rivals agreed last month to pay a total of just $800 _ $200 each _ to resolve a flight attendant's claim of injury from secondhand smoke, Sorrells said.

Grisham said he sued Philip Morris in 1994 after investigators cited a cigarette as the cause of the blaze and after he learned that the Marlboro 100 and other cigarettes are designed to continue burning down to the filter even when someone is not inhaling.

He said his case was bolstered in 2000 when Philip Morris started selling a new version of its Merit cigarettes with ultra-thin horizontal bands designed to slow the burn.

Shannon, whose fingers were amputated and who lost her hearing after years of using medicine to treat infections, attends school but has trouble speaking, Grisham said. She will use some of the money for a wig and for a machine that helps her communicate, Grisham said.

Mary Aronson, a litigation and public policy analyst, said the case was unusual enough that Philip Morris did not have to worry about a slew of copycat claims.

``Usually the individual involved in a case is a smoker who, over a number of years, had used the product and gotten sick and is trying to recoup damages,'' she said. ``This one is a lot different.''

Jon Opelt of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse said he was surprised that the Moore case was not dismissed, as judges have done in about 15 similar cases around the country where people were injured in cigarette fires.

``The case falls under the category of misplaced blame,'' Opelt said. ``Others are being made to pay for a terrible and horrific incident. Clearly the young girl would not have been injured if she had not been left unattended.''

In trading Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange, Altria Group shares fell 7 cents to $44.30.

___ Associated Press correspondent Lynn Brezosky in Harlingen contributed to this report.

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