Sulcer v. R.J. Reynolds (Pensacola, Florida)
A Pensacola jury returned a plaintiff verdict against Lorillard Tobacco today, but the damage award was minimal. Earlier this year, prevailing Engle plaintiffs also were awarded only very modest damages in Kirkland v. R.J. Reynolds and Hatziyannakis v. Philip Morris. For Lorillard, today's result was much better than last month's verdict in Mrozek v. R.J. Reynolds, which was the largest Engle plaintiff verdict so far in 2011.
Billy Sulcer started smoking 25 years before the first warnings went on packs of cigarettes, said Levin Papantinio's Bobby Loehr, when Mr. Sulcer was 13 years old. "Billy Sulcer's addiction to cigarettes was strongly implanted in his brain long before his brain was fully developed."
"Billy Sulcer didn't have the tools until later in life to break out of the addiction he knew absolutely nothing about when he got into it," said Mr. Loehr, "but that Lorillard and the other manufacturers knew a whole lot about. They designed it, they marketed it, they tweaked it, they engineered it, they touted it for years and years and years. They claim they bear no responsibility whatsoever for that. None...After they found out that their products were strongly addictive, after they found out that nearly 90% of the people who started their products were under the age of 18, after they found out they were likely to cause lung cancer...After they found all that out, they entered into a 50-year conspiracy to cover up, to hide what they knew."
For Lorillard, DLA Piper's William Boggs told the jury, "Whatever Lorillard did, it did not directly impact Billy Sulcer. Billy Sulcer chose to smoke Lorillard. Billy Sulcer knew when he was smoking Lorillard cigarettes that they posed health risks. Billy Sulcer accepted those health risks. His wife has accepted responsibility for that."
"At the very beginning of the case," Mr. Boggs continued, "I said it was a case about choices and responsibility. It still is...[Billy Sulcer] was a person who believed in responsibility. I believe that if he was here he would accept full responsibility for his decision to continue to smoke, knowing of the health risks."
In his closing rebuttal, Mr. Loehr said, "Mr. Sulcer struggled for well over a decade with his attempts to control his smoking, his attempts to quit smoking...Yeah Mr. Sulcer accepts responsibility. Mrs. Sulcer does as well. He should have tried harder. He was just like so many other people."
"They have suggested to you," said Mr. Loehr, "in a way that is perhaps somewhat offensive, that Mr. Sulcer would have accepted full responsibility for what happened to him. In other words, we wouldn't be here. But you gotta think about this for a minute. Do they really want you to judge them with Billy Sulcer's values? Take 'em up on it. Go ahead. Take 'em up on it. What did you hear from his children, from everyone who knew him? He was a decent, kind, moral man, and the one thing he couldn't stand was dishonesty. When his son Richie told a few fibs, like many of us probably did at that age, his father got so mad he said he would shake him. Billy Sulcer wouldn't have tolerated this. And how dare they suggest he would have. You think Billy Sulcer would have put up with their concealment? With their conspiracy? With their deceit? They ask you to judge them on Billy Sulcer's standards. I would suggest that that's a very, very good idea."
The jury found that Mr. Sulcer was addicted to cigarettes, and the addiction was the legal cause of his death. The jury awarded damages of $225,000, and allocated 95% of the fault to Billy Sulcer and 5% to Lorillard. The jury found that punitive damages were not warranted. After reducing the award by 95%, Ms. Sulcer would recover $11,250.