Document destruction practices obliterate tobacco company defenses in critical Australian decision

McCabe v. BAT
An Australian grandmother dying from lung cancer and suing British American Tobacco (BAT) was awarded $700,000 (Australian or about $375,000 US) by a Melbourne jury. The jury only considered the amount of damages and not any liability questions because the trial judge found that BAT's document destruction activities made a fair trial impossible.

Rolah Ann McCabe is a 51-year old woman suffering from the advanced stages of lung cancer. Her lawsuit sought compensatory, pain and suffering, and punitive damages against British American Tobacco Australia Services Limited (formerly WD and HO Wills), the Australian subsidiary of tobacco giant BAT. She smoked Escort and Capstan brands. Ms. McCabe alleged that BAT Australia, itself or through its predecessor and affiliated companies, knew that cigarettes were addictive and dangerous to health, and by its advertising targeted children to become consumers. She charged that BAT Australia, knowing the dangers of addiction and to health of consumers, took no reasonable steps to reduce or eliminate the risk of addiction or the health risks, and ignored or publicly disparaged research results that indicated the dangers to health of smoking.

Ms. McCabe allowed her punitive damages claims to be voluntarily dismissed because her health was such that she might not survive to the end of the trial were those additional claims to be presented. Had she died prior to the jury's verdict, monetary recovery would have been substantially reduced under Australian law. Due to the circumstances of the case, one can only assume that she would have likely succeeded had those claims gone to the jury.

The trial was held in the Supreme Court of Victoria at Melbourne with Justice Geoffrey Eames presiding. After four hours of deliberation, the jury returned its verdict in favor of Ms. McCabe.

Document Destruction Sanctions
The plaintiff's attorney (known as a barris

Contact: Christine Phelan
Northeastern University

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