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He’s Raised the Tobacco Bar

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Michael Piuze was in his 20s, he found himself in a south Florida jail on a traffic violation. Piuze asked if he could place the phone call he figured he had a right to make.

“Boy, Jefferson Davis didn’t write that in the Constitution,” Piuze recalled a guard telling him.

Piuze said he was “roughed up” by guards during that five-day jail stint.

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The incident inspired him to go to law school. And now Piuze is the one who’s dishing out the punishment.

The 58-year-old lawyer scored a $28-billion verdict against Philip Morris Cos. last week, the largest-ever punitive damage award to an individual plaintiff. That comes on top of a $3-billion verdict Piuze won against the tobacco company last year on behalf of another smoker.

A late arrival to the nation’s tobacco wars, the veteran personal injury and product liability lawyer has quickly emerged as a star of the anti-tobacco bar. The attorney, who works with a few paralegals out of a Brentwood office suite, has two more tobacco cases on deck, including one scheduled for trial Jan. 2.

Piuze (pronounced “pews”) has won praise for his performance in the courtroom, where, observers say, he has a knack for connecting to jurors with his “regular Joe” perspective and homespun anecdotes. Even his opponents have referred to him as a gifted storyteller with “a seductive quality.”

In his private life, though, Piuze claims few close friends. He exudes intensity, colleagues say, racing a custom-built Porsche on a professional track at speeds exceeding 150 mph and sticking to a tough exercise regimen. Fees from blockbuster verdicts in other cases have made him a wealthy man, with a home in Malibu and a fleet of exotic sports cars that he insists on washing himself, according to people who know him. He is married but separated from his wife.

“He loves fast cars, he loves beautiful women and he’s very intense at what he does,” said Garo Mardirossian, a lawyer who has worked with Piuze on tobacco cases. “Money is usually the last thing on his mind. He’s already made money that he never thought he could, so he does things because he believes in the cause.”

It is unclear how much in fees, if anything, Piuze will eventually collect from his two mega-verdicts against Philip Morris. Plaintiffs’ lawyers working on contingency generally get 30% of whatever is ultimately paid out, and tobacco verdicts usually are reduced and delayed for years on appeal.

Lawyers who have opposed Piuze say he is dogged in his pursuit of what he considers fair compensation for his clients and is unwilling to accept less. Vincent Galvin, who opposed Piuze in an auto accident case, said: “You don’t have settlement negotiations with Mike, and that’s very unique among plaintiffs’ lawyers. I think he’s very capable.” Litigating against him “is a challenge and it forces you to be on your game.”

William S. Ohlemeyer, vice president and associate general counsel for Philip Morris, was critical of Piuze’s pursuit of a multibillion-dollar award against his company: “Guys like Michael Piuze aren’t going to bully us.”

Piuze asked the jury for up to $20 billion, which Philip Morris considered far out of proportion to the $850,000 that the jury awarded for compensatory damages. That, said Ohlemeyer, “is something that an exceptional lawyer, a good lawyer, a fair-minded lawyer, wouldn’t do. You know, I know, he knows the law doesn’t allow that.”

After working as a lawyer defending insurance companies for three years, Piuze opened his own small firm in 1976. Handling insurance, medical malpractice and auto accident cases, he has won some of the biggest verdicts in Southern California.

Last year, he obtained a $15-million verdict against General Motors Corp., the latest outcome in a 10-year-old case that had bounced between trial and appeal. Piuze’s client had fallen asleep at the wheel of his Chevrolet Blazer, which then veered off the road and flipped over. The roof collapsed and paralyzed the then-18-year-old driver. Piuze argued that the vehicle’s roof had been poorly designed. The case is on appeal.

In the early 1990s, he represented a pair of diamond wholesalers who said $8 million worth of precious stones had been stolen from their store. A federal grand jury later indicted his clients for allegedly faking the theft and engaging in bank fraud. The pair pleaded no contest to three related felony bank fraud counts. Representing the pair, Piuze accused their insurance company of bad faith for trying to rescind its policy and obtained a settlement of about $3 million.

Piuze has been a maverick within the plaintiff’s bar, sometimes clashing with his fellow lawyers. In the late 1980s, manufacturers and other interests successfully lobbied for a California law that would limit product-liability claims. In a compromise with business interests, trial lawyers agreed to forgo lawsuits against tobacco companies, which were not their bread and butter.

Piuze, who had been planning to sue on behalf of a smoker, was left with no case. California lawmakers repealed the ban in 1997, clearing the way for Piuze to take up his tobacco crusade.

As a lawyer, Piuze describes himself as a “combatant.” People who have worked with him say he shuns traditional trial preparation, often cramming before key court days. In the tobacco case, he relied primarily on documents and research already unearthed by state attorneys general pressing their own cases against cigarette manufacturers.

“I’m not a preparer,” Piuze said. Many litigators, he said, “prepare for a living but rarely if ever go into battle. I’m not belittling preparation, but I feel there are other people that do it way better than me.”

In the case of Big Tobacco, however, Piuze had done a degree of personal homework. The son of a truck driver, Piuze described himself as a “non-student” while growing up in Worcester, Mass. Around age 13, while working in the kitchen at a New Hampshire summer camp, he started smoking, quickly developing a two-pack-a-day habit. He smoked Marlboros for more than 20 years and said he ignored federal health warnings about cigarettes during the 1960s because, at the time, “a very substantial portion of our population didn’t believe anything our government said.” He quit in 1981 at the insistence of one of his daughters.

In representing Betty Bullock, a Newport Beach grandmother and longtime smoker who is dying of lung cancer, the plaintiff in his most recent victory, Piuze challenged the idea that his client bore personal responsibility for her condition. With his voice cracking and tears welling in his eyes, he told jurors that “she stayed long enough to do this. She’s hung on.” Bullock, he said, was acting as a responsible person by taking on Big Tobacco, “to say, ‘To heck with them.’ ”

Experts say the massive verdict in the Bullock case is likely to be cut. Indeed, a judge reduced Piuze’s $3-billion verdict last year to $100 million, and Philip Morris is still appealing the case. Piuze declined to discuss the possibility of having the Bullock case award slashed. But colleagues say he has been irritated by the prospect that his biggest wins face stiff challenges later.

“He’s been very frustrated by the legal system,” said Gary Dordick, an attorney and longtime friend of Piuze. “Mike has probably lost more money on appeal than 99% of the other lawyers in California added up. Our jury system is based on 12 people in the community being there in the courtroom and determining what’s fair. Then you have appellate justices who weren’t there then throwing it out in its entirety. It’s happened time and time and time again.”

Piuze estimates that he poured about $500,000 of his own money into pursuing his previous tobacco case, and about the same sum representing Bullock. He said he is happy to finance such cases.

“Even though I quit [smoking] 20 years ago, my odds of getting lung cancer are about four times a nonsmoker’s,” he said.

“I truthfully figured I was just one more disposable piece of meat as far as they were concerned. I’m in a position to help do a little justice here.”

Times staff writer Myron Levin contributed to this report.


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