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BREAKING UPDATE: $14M in Punitives Pushes Verdict for Smoker's Widow to $21M Total in Trial Against Philip Morris & RJR

Posted by Arlin Crisco on May 21, 2018 10:11:55 PM

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5/24/18 9AM Update: The Florida state court jury imposed a $10 million punitive verdict against Philip Morris and another $4 million against R.J. Reynolds after deliberating for about four hours Wednesday in the second phase of trial over the lung cancer death of Fred Theis. The punitive verdict brings the total damage award to $21 million. 

5/22/18 11:51 AM Update: Jurors awarded $7 million to the widow of a Florida smoker, and concluded punitive damages are potentially warranted, after finding R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris responsible for his lung cancer death. The jury, which also found the cigarette makers liable on fraud and conspiracy claims, apportioned 60% of fault to Philip Morris, 15% to Reynolds and 25% to Fred Theis, the smoker at the center of the case. Punitive proceedings are slated to begin this afternoon. 

Venice, FL—Attorneys sparred Monday over what, if any, responsibility the nation’s two largest cigarette makers bore for the lung cancer death of a long-time Florida smoker, as closings wrapped before the case went to the jury. Theis v. Philip Morris, et al., 2011-CA-001941.

Fred Theis was diagnosed with lung cancer months after he quit smoking in 1995. He died within two years of that diagnosis, at age 54. Theis, a smoker by 9th grade, would consume up to three packs of cigarettes a day for more than 35 years. His family contends he died because of nicotine addiction and a wide-ranging conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking during much of the latter half of the 20th century.

“At every point of the way, he was entitled to the truth. He was entitled to know what they knew, and he was entitled not to have filters that didn’t work,” Gordon & Doner’s Gary Paige, representing the Theis family, said, as he contended cigarette makers launched an array of false messages to undercut the scientific evidence of smoking’s risks. “He was entitled not to have light cigarettes that were a fraud. He was entitled not to have ammonia and diammonium phosphate added to the cigarettes.”

Paige requested $12 million in compensatory damages, plus a finding that punitives are warranted, during Monday’s closings.

The case is one of thousands of similar suits spun from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision decertifying Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a class-action originally filed in 1994. Although the state’s supreme court ruled that Engle-progeny cases must be tried individually, it found plaintiffs could rely on certain jury findings in the original case, including the determination that tobacco companies had placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and had conspired to hide the dangers of smoking through much of the 20th century.

To recover damages, however, each plaintiff must prove nicotine addiction caused a smoking-related disease such as lung cancer.

Paige said expert testimony and at least two addiction tests showed Theis, who allegedly failed in multiple quit attempts before he stopped for good, was hooked on nicotine. Paige added Theis’ addiction met the cigarette makers’ goal to keep its customer base, despite the health risks it carried. “In the 50s, the 60s, the 70’s, the 80s, Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds wanted Fred Theis to be addicted,” Paige said. “They knew the consequences would be that [it would] cause lung cancer.”

But the defense contends Theis was responsible for the consequences of his smoking because he did not try to quit for decades, despite widespread public health warnings. During Monday’s closings, Shook Hardy’s Walter Cofer told jurors there was no evidence Theis tried to quit before 1984, and that a visit to a smoking cessation clinic in the late 1980s or early 90s likely represented his first serious quit attempt. “Had he quit smoking in the early to mid-1980s, more likely than not he would’ve avoided his lung cancer,” Cofer said. “And, members of the jury we wouldn’t be here.”

Womble Bond Dickinson’s Kurt Weaver, representing Reynolds, added that the roughly six-year period Theis smoked his client’s brands did not increase Theis’ lung cancer risk. Weaver noted Theis’ treating oncologist, Dr. John Ruckdeschel, published a book in which he defined a significant smoker as someone with a 20-pack-year history. “[Ruckdeschel] indicated you need that 20-pack-year history before the risk of cancer starts to go up in a meaningful way,” Weaver said. “Dr. Ruckdeschel has nothing else to do but to admit that [Theis’] use of Reynolds cigarettes was insignificant.”

Deliberations, which began Monday before wrapping for the evening, will continue Tuesday morning. CVN will update this article as events warrant.

Email Arlin Crisco at acrisco@cvn.com.

Related Information

Faye Theis is represented by Gordon & Doner’s Gary Paige and Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley’s T. Hardee Bass.

R.J. Reynolds is represented by Womble Bond Dickinson’s Kurt Weaver.

Philip Morris is represented by Shook Hardy & Bacon’s Walter Cofer & Michael Walden.

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Topics: Theis v. Philip Morris, et al., Florida, tobacco, Engle Progeny