Jury Holds Tobacco Company Accountable For Smoker's Diseases

Julie Reese began smoking cigarettes in 1939, at age 10. She soon became addicted to nicotine, and by age 16, she was smoking about one pack per day. In 1994, at age 65, Reese was diagnosed with Stage II squamous cell carcinoma of the larynx. She underwent radiation treatment but faces the possibility of a recurrence. In 2003, at 74, Reese was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which has become severe. Her prognosis is poor.

Reese sued R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., which manufactured the brands she smoked, alleging that the company sold a defective and unreasonably dangerous product, failed to warn of the health risks and addictiveness of its cigarettes, and intentionally concealed and conspired to conceal the health risks from the public.

The defendant argued, among other things, that Reese did not seriously attempt to quit and continued to smoke even after warnings began appearing on cigarettes packs in the 1960s. The defense also argued that Reese’s throat cancer could have resulted from the human papilloma virus and/or alcohol use, and that her COPD might have been caused by asthma.

The jury determined that the plaintiff was entitled to rely on the findings in Engle v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 18 PLLR 138 (Aug. 1999). Although the Engle class was later decertified, the Florida Supreme court ruled that the findings on general causation, cigarettes’ addictiveness, strict liability, and certain other findings would have res judicata effect in individual lawsuits. Engle v. Liggett Group, Inc., 945 So. 2d 1246 (Fla. 2006), 25 PLLR 149 (Aug. 2006).Thus, the trial court here instructed the jury on the Engle findings.

The jury found that Reese was addicted to the nicotine in the defendant’s cigarettes; that her addiction had caused her smoking-related illnesses; and that the defendant’s negligence, defective and unreasonably dangerous product, concealment of the health risks, and conspiracy to conceal were legal causes of her injuries. It apportioned responsibility at 70 percent to Reese and 30 percent to R.J. Reynolds. The jury then awarded about $3.55 million in compensatory damages. After allocation of fault, the award totals just under $1.07 million.

The trial court has denied the defendant’s motions for a new trial or remittitur, and it has filed an appeal.

Citation: Reese v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., No. 2007-030296-CA-24 (Fla., Miami-Dade Co. Cir. posttrial motions denied Sept. 8, 2011.)

Plaintiff counsel: Jeffrey H. Sloman and Allan B. Kaiser, both of Miami.

Plaintiff expert: Robert Proctor, tobacco industry history, Palo Alto, California.

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