New Port Richey, FL—Jurors this week awarded the family of a Florida smoker $19.5 million after finding R.J. Reynolds responsible for his fatal lung cancer. Graffeo v. R.J. Reynolds, 2016CA000233.
The award includes $4.5 million in compensatory damages to the widow and daughter of Frank Graffeo and a $15 million punitive verdict imposed against R.J. Reynolds for its role in a scheme to hide the dangers of cigarettes, which jurors concluded hooked Graffeo to nicotine and ultimely led to his cancer.
Graffeo, a Florida pawn shop owner, began smoking cigarettes as a teenager in New York during the 1950s and continued for three decades. Despite quitting cigarettes, he developed lung cancer and died, at 53, in 1995.
The case is one of thousands spun from from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a Florida state court class-action lawsuit originally filed in 1994. Plaintiffs in that suit contended a sweeping scheme by the nation’s tobacco companies to hide the dangers of smoking throughout much of the 20th century led to widespread nicotine addiction among smokers and ultimately caused various smoking-related diseases.
After a trial victory for the class members, the state’s supreme court ultimately decertified the class, but ruled that so-called Engle progeny cases may be tried individually. Engle progeny plaintiffs are entitled to the benefit of the jury's findings in the original verdict, including the determination that tobacco companies had placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and hid the dangers of smoking, if they prove the smoker at the heart of the case suffered from nicotine addiction that was the legal cause of a smoking-related disease such as lung cancer.
Much of the Graffeo trial focused on nicotine addiction. During closings of the trial's first phase Monday, Jones Day’s Mark Belasic, representing Reynolds, argued Graffeo’s own physician did not believe he was a nicotine addict. Belasic also said evidence showed Graffeo successfully quit smoking by exchanging cigarettes for lollipops, a habit-change inconsistent with someone hooked to nicotine. “Heroin addicts, oxy addicts, meth addicts—they’re not going to quit by just saying, 'Well, I want to and I’m going to use lollipops or something.' He quit by substituting one habit for another. And the way he smoked and the way he quit is not consistent with addiction,” Belasic said. “You don’t have to take my word for it, take [the word of] his doctor, who knew him best.”
But plaintiff’s lawyers argued Graffeo’s 1-2 pack-a-day smoking history, as well as his behavior when he wasn’t able to have a cigarette, were hallmarks of nicotine addiction. During closings of the trial’s first phase Monday, The Ruth Law Team’s Eric Roslansky reminded jurors nicotine addiction expert Dr. William Hurt considered Graffeo addicted to cigarettes under a variety of tests. “[Hurt] told us that people who had this type of cigarette history smoking 20-40… cigarettes for 30 years, 100 percent of those people have [an] addiction,” Roslansky said. “Frank Graffeo is one of those 100 percent. Frank Graffeo was addicted.”
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Plaintiffs are represented by Paul Knopf Bigger’s Brent Bigger and The Ruth Law Team’s Eric Roslansky.
The defense is represented by Jones Day’s Mark Belasic and Jose Isasi.
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