Viera, FL—A Florida state court jury last week handed down verdicts totaling $36 million to the family of a smoker who died from lung cancer they claim was caused by a sweeping conspiracy to hide the dangers of cigarettes. Wallace v. Philip Morris, 2014-CA052862.
The award includes $12 million in compensatory damages to the family of Robert Wallace, 50, who died of lung cancer in 1992, as well as $24 million in total punitive damages imposed Friday afternoon against Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, the country’s two largest cigarette makers.
Wallace began smoking about 1957 as a 15-year old and continued the habit for about 35 years. His family claims Philip Morris, makers of the Parliaments and other cigarettes Wallace favored, and Reynolds, as a co-conspirator with Philip Morris and others in a decades-long scheme to hide the dangers of cigarettes, are responsible for Wallace’s nicotine addiction and his eventual cancer.
Thursday’s verdict found both tobacco companies responsible on the respective claims against them. The jury’s compensatory award includes $6 million to Wallace’s widow, Fontaine, and $3 million each to two of Wallace’s children, Michelle Campanelli and David Wallace.
After a one-day punitive proceeding, jurors imposed $16 million in punitives against Philip Morris and $8 million against Reynolds.
The Wallace case stems from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a Florida state court class-action lawsuit originally filed in 1994. 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.
This is the largest award in more than 16 CVN-covered Engle trials taken to verdict in Florida so far this year.
Wallace is the relatively unusual trial where plaintiffs argued a tobacco defendant, here R.J. Reynolds, was liable solely for conspiracy.
The 12-day trial focused largely on whether Wallace was addicted to cigarettes, and the tobacco industry’s role in his smoking.
During Wednesday’s closings of the trial’s first phase, Womble Carlyle’s Kurt Weaver argued there was no connection between Reynolds and Wallace’s smoking decisions, noting no concrete evidence that Reynolds marketing or statements influenced Wallace’s choices. “Robert Wallace was not looking to R.J. Reynolds for any information, Weaver said. “In fact, there’s no evidence that Mr. Wallace was looking to any tobacco group for information.”
Shook Hardy’s Walter Cofer, representing Philip Morris, argued evidence showed Wallace enjoyed smoking and was never truly motivated to quit. During Wednesday’s closings, Cofer noted Wallace only filled a single prescription for nicotine gum, and Cofer questioned testimony that Wallace used a nicotine patch, pointing out that the patch was not available when his family maintained he used it. “The plaintiff would have you believe that her husband was a total addict who was simply unable to quit smoking,” Cofer said. “Is that consistent with the facts of the case? Are those the efforts of an addict desperately trying to kick his habit?”
But Gordon & Doner’s Gary Paige, representing the Wallace family, argued Wallace’s 1-2 pack-a-day habit for more than 35 years, combined with repeated, failed quit attempts, met a variety of definitions of nicotine addiction.
Paige added Reynolds bore a share of the blame for Wallace’s death by working in concert with Philip Morris on marketing initiatives to cast doubt on the hazards of cigarettes. During closings, Paige highlighted decades of tobacco industry documents implicating both Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds in an agreement to conceal smoking’s dangers. “They shouldn’t have been deliberately concealing what the effects of nicotine are. They should have been educating people. It’s their product. Unless we’re going to say, ‘Hey, you can do whatever you want. You can lie, you can steal, you can hurt people,'” Paige said. “That’s not the way it works in a free society, in a legal society. There are rules that apply to everybody.”
Email Arlin Crisco at [email protected].
Gary Paige, of Gordon & Doner, and Randy Rosenblum, of Dolan Dobrinsky Rosemblum, represent Fontaine Wallace.
Walter Cofer, of Shook Hardy & Bacon, represents Philip Morris.
Kurt Weaver, of Womble Carlyle, represents R.J. Reynolds.
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