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$3M Verdict Slaps R.J. Reynolds in Trial Over Ex-Corrections Officer's Emphysema, Death

Posted by Meghan Gourley on Sep 26, 2016 1:56:48 PM

Daytona Beach, FL—Jurors Friday awarded $3 million to the widow of a former correctional officer for the role they found R.J. Reynolds played in his emphysema and death, but they declined to find punitive damages were warranted against the tobacco giant. Smith v. R.J. Reynolds, 2015 30548 CICI. 

Jurors needed less than three hours to conclude Julius Smith's 45 years of smoking were driven by nicotine addiction that ultimately caused his emphysema and death in 2015.  Although the jury found Reynolds liable on conspiracy grounds as part of a decades-long scheme to hide the dangers of cigarettes, it absolved the company of liability on a claim of fraud. 

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Smith, 75, began smoking at about 15 and ultimately smoked up to 2 packs a day of Reynolds' Winston and Camel brands, among others, across more than four decades. His widow, Sherry, claims Reynolds' participation in an industry-wide scheme to hide the dangers of cigarettes caused her husband's nicotine addiction and death.  

Friday's verdict apportioned 35% of responsibility to Smith and 65% to Reynolds.  

One of Sherry Smith's attorneys, Gary Praglin of Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack, requested up to $10 million in compensatory damages, plus a finding of punitive liability, during Friday's closings. 

The case is one of thousands of similar lawsuits stemming from the 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision decertifying Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a Florida state court class-action lawsuit originally filed in 1994. Although the state’s high court ruled Engle cases must be tried individually, it found plaintiffs could rely on certain jury findings in the original verdict, including the conclusion tobacco companies had placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and had hidden the dangers of smoking. To rely on those findings, individual Engle progeny plaintiffs must establish a causal link between nicotine addiction and smoking-related disease, such as Smith's emphysema, a type of chronic obstructive respiratory disease, or COPD. 

The question of addiction served as a key battle line in the eight-day trial. During Friday's closings, Jones Day's Emily Baker, representing Reynolds, reminded jurors none of Smith's treating physicians ever diagnosed him as addicted to nicotine, and she criticized the "Heaviness of Smoking Index," under which plaintiff's expert, Dr. Richard Hurt, found Smith to be a nicotine addict. "It's a test with only one outcome," Baker said. "You're considered addicted under this test even if you score zero."

Baker told jurors Smith smoked by choice rather than because of addiction. "The truth is, and the evidence has shown, that Mr. Smith smoked because he wanted to. He didn’t want to throw away his cigarettes. Smoking gave him a social outlet. It helped him relax, he enjoyed smoking with a cup of coffee. Nothing wrong with that." 

But William Wichmann, an attorney for Smith's widow, Sherry Smith, painted a very different picture of Smith, whom he described as a tortured smoker who tried multiple times throughout his life to quit, using hypnosis, nicotine gum, sprays, and going "cold turkey." It wasn't until Smith was diagnosed and hospitalized with prostate cancer in 2002 that he was forced to quit, Wichmann said. 

Wichmann noted Smith scored a "6 out of 6" on the Heaviness of Smoking Index, considered "high dependence" to nicotine. Wichmann reminded jurors the test was based on the amount of cigarettes Smith smoked as well as when he could smoke, among other factors. "You heard the evidence, it's uncontradicted, not only did he smoke first thing [in the morning], he smoked when he was in bed."

Wichmann told jurors Smith's family saw their father struggle with smoking even during his hospitalization for prostate cancer. "[His daughter] prayed for her daddy to quit," Wichmann said. "He asked them, 'Pray for me to quit. This is how hard it is for me.' He begged—those were her words. He begged for cigarettes." 

Email CVN editorial staff at acrisco@cvn.com

Related Information: 

Sherry Smith is represented by William Wichmann of the Law Offices of William J. Wichmann and Gary Praglin of Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack.

R.J. Reynolds is represented by Emily Baker and Harold Gordon, both of Jones Day.

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Topics: Smith v. R.J. Reynolds, Florida, tobacco, Engle Progeny, Products Liability, Negligence