Fort Lauderdale, FL—A state court jury Monday hit R.J. Reynolds with a nearly $27.8 million punitive verdict, capping a $41.7 million total award against the tobacco giant for its role in the respiratory disease that jurors found forced a Florida woman to undergo a lung transplant. Schlefstein v. R.J. Reynolds, 2008-CV-022558.
Monday’s verdict followed a $14 million compensatory award and a one-day punitive phase at trial over Reynolds’ responsibility for the respiratory disease Dawn Schlefstein suffered after decades of smoking cigarettes made by the company.
Schlefstein, who began smoking by the time she was 16, continued the habit for more than 30 years, until doctors diagnosed her with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD, in 1995. Despite quitting, the disease became so serious she ultimately underwent a left lung transplant in 2001.
Schlefstein, 63, died in 2009 for reasons unrelated to smoking, but her family claims Reynolds caused her COPD by conspiring to hide the dangers of cigarettes for much of her life.
Monday’s $27.79 million punitive award roughly equaled the $27.8 million requested by The Alvarez Law Firm’s Alex Alvarez, who, along with Gordon & Doner’s Gary Paige, represents Schlefstein’s family.
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. 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 emphysema.
Yesterday’s punitive phase focused on whether Reynolds had done enough over the last 20 years to mitigate punishment for its role in Schlefstein’s respiratory disease.
During closing arguments, King & Spalding’s Kathryn Lehman told jurors the Reynolds of today is far different than the company that drove a decades-long conspiracy to hide smoking’s dangers from the public. Lehman reminded jurors cigarette manufacture and sales are now regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, while Reynolds has fully disclosed its own internal documents related to the conspiracy, and has spent billions of dollars to develop safer smoking alternatives.
Lehman said Reynolds’ modern-day conduct argued for a rejection of punitive damages, but suggested a $1.5 million punitive verdict if jurors felt one was necessary. “Punishment without purpose is not deterrence. It’s not valid,” Lehman said. “That’s not what you’re being asked to do here today. And we would ask that you not do that.”
But Alvarez told jurors changes in Reynolds and the tobacco industry at large came too late for Schlefstein. “All these things that were shown to you, you have to ask yourself, ‘Could that have made a difference to her, if they would have done it in 1953, 1963, 1973, 1983, 1993? Could they have avoided what happened to this woman?’” Alvarez asked. “[They came] too late. People got hurt. Dawn got hurt.”
Email Arlin Crisco at email@example.com.
Plaintiffs are represented by Gordon & Doner’s Gary Paige and The Alvarez Law Firm’s Alex Alvarez.
The defense is represented by King & Spalding’s Ray Persons and Kathryn Lehman.
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