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updated 12/14/2010 6:21:11 PM ET 2010-12-14T23:21:11

A jury has ruled the Lorillard Tobacco Co. tried to entice black children to become smokers by handing out free cigarettes and has awarded $71 million in compensatory damages to the estate and son of a woman who died of lung cancer.

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The Suffolk Superior Court jury announced its verdict Tuesday after hearing weeks of testimony.

Willie Evans alleged Lorillard introduced his mother, Marie Evans, to smoking as a child in the 1950s by giving her free Newport cigarettes at the Orchard Park housing project in Boston, where she lived. He said his mother smoked for more than 40 years before dying of lung cancer at age 54.

The jury awarded Marie Evans' estate $50 million in compensatory damages and gave her son $21 million. A hearing on possible punitive damages is set for Thursday.

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During the trial, a lawyer for Lorillard, which is based in Greensboro, N.C., said that like many other cigarette companies it gave away free samples decades ago to adults in an attempt to get them to switch brands. But the company insisted it did not give cigarettes to children and called the allegation that it intentionally gave samples to black children "disturbing."

Company plans to appeal
The company's lawyer also said Evans made the decision to start smoking and continued to smoke even after she suffered a heart attack in 1985 and her doctors repeatedly urged her to quit. A spokesman said the company would appeal the verdict.

"Lorillard respectfully disagrees with the jury's verdict and denies the plaintiff's claim that the company sampled to children or adults at Orchard Park in the early 1960s," company spokesman Gregg Perry said. "The plaintiff's 50-year-old memories were persuasively contradicted by testimony from several witnesses. The company will appeal and is confident it will prevail once the Massachusetts Court of Appeals reviews this case."

Willie Evans' attorney, Michael Weisman, declined to comment on the case until after Thursday's court hearing.

The lawsuit was believed to be the first in the country to accuse a cigarette-maker of targeting black children by giving away cigarettes in urban neighborhoods, said Edward A. Sweda, senior attorney for the Tobacco Product Liability Project at Boston's Northeastern University School of Law. He said the jury's decision is "quite significant and groundbreaking here in Massachusetts for a plaintiff in a tobacco case."

Sweda predicted it could lead to similar lawsuits around the country by people who also recall getting free cigarettes as children.

Marie Evans' lawyers said she received her first free cigarettes at about age 9 and initially gave them to her older sisters or traded them for candy. They said she began smoking at age 13.

Jurors also heard from Evans herself through a videotaped deposition she gave to her lawyers in 2002, three weeks before she died. On the tape, Evans said the cigarette giveaways had a "large impact" on her.

"Because they were available ... I didn't worry about finding money to buy them," she said. "They seemed to be always available."

Evans said that over the years she made about 50 attempts to quit smoking but couldn't.

"I was addicted," she said. "I just couldn't stop."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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