Vero Beach, FL—In closing arguments today, counsel debated whether Gloria Gore, the deceased smoker at the center of one of Florida’s Engle progeny tobacco suits, was a nicotine addict whose smoking ultimately killed her, or was a smoker-by-choice who enjoyed her cigarettes. The wrongful death suit against R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris, one of the first Engle trials since a record punitive verdict against tobacco companies in a similar suit last month, has been given to the jury. Robert Gore v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
Stephen Corr, representing Gloria's husband, plaintiff Robert Gore, described Gloria as a heavily addicted smoker who began the habit when she was 14. Corr replayed for jurors testimony of Gloria forcing Robert out into a hurricane to look for cigarettes. “She goes out (in a hurricane) because she needs to get the nicotine in those cigarettes," Corr told jurors. "She grabbed cigarette butts out of the ashtray, out of the trashcan, and smoked those, just to get what she needed. The addictive nature of the nicotine is so overwhelming, it causes her to do these things.” Corr said.
But Robert McCarter, representing Philip Morris, told jurors that Gloria chose to smoke because she enjoyed it. He reminded jurors that Gloria refused to quit smoking while pregnant with her three children, said she smoking, and became upset when Robert or others told her to quit.
Gloria Gore, who smoked 1-2 packs of cigarettes a day for 45 years, died of lung cancer in 2000. Robert filed suit as an Engle-class plaintiff and seeks $7.5 million in damages. Whether Gloria was addicted to nicotine is a threshold issue of Robert's Engle class membership.
Robert must also prove that Gloria’s addiction caused her to contract a smoking-related disease by the November 21, 1996 cutoff date for Engle class membership. Although Gloria was not diagnosed with lung cancer until after that date, Corr argued that smoking caused Gloria’s carotid stenosis, or narrowing of the carotid arteries, which was diagnosed in 1992.
Corr pointed to trial testimony of Dr. David Burns, a smoking addiction expert, who said he believed Gloria was addicted to smoking and that her addiction was “a substantial contributing factor” to her stenosis.
However, McCarter reminded the jury that Gloria bore a variety of risk factors for stenosis, including high cholesterol, a family history of heart disease, and a history of smoking. McCarter noted that Burns was a paid expert who never personally examined Gloria, while a physician who treated Gloria did not testify at trial.
While the claim of carotid stenosis serves to establish Engle class membership, if jurors determine Robert Gore has met the Engle threshold, he becomes eligible to recover damages for Gloria’s lung cancer and death.
Gore is one of thousands of tobacco cases that arise from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision decertifying Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a 1994 class action suit. Although that decision ruled Engle cases must be tried individually, it found qualifying Engle progeny plaintiffs could rely on certain jury findings in the original case, including the conclusion that tobacco companies sold a dangerous, addictive product. In July, jurors awarded a smoker’s widow more than $23 billion in punitive damages in her Engle suit against R.J. Reynolds and other tobacco companies.
In requesting $7.5 million in compensatory damages and a jury determination that punitive damages are warranted, Gore's attorney Robert Foote acknowledged that Gloria was partially responsible for the long-term effects of her smoking. However Foote urged jurors to apportion the lion’s share of responsibility to the defendants when determining damages. Foote told jurors that Gloria smoked throughout the tobacco industry’s decades-long coverup of smoking’s dangers. "Gloria was right in the middle of this conspiracy," he said. "It affected her as much as it affected any American, because she had the conspiracy from the beginning to the end," Foote said, arguing for a finding that punitive damages are warranted.
However, the defense contended that Gloria bore sole responsibility for her smoking. McCarter told jurors, “Mrs. Gore made her decisions to smoke, and not to quit, for her own reasons," McCarter said. "If you have the information, and you make the choice, and you don't want to stop, it's your responsibility," he said.
They case was given to the jury shortly before 6 p.m. Jurors elected to leave for the evening and will return tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. to deliberate.