Fort Lauderdale, FL—Jurors Monday found the nation’s two largest tobacco companies liable for $4 million in compensatory damages, as well as potential punitives, for the role they concluded the companies played in the cancer and emphysema of a former nurse who smoked for more than three decades. Howles v. R.J. Reynolds, 2007-CV-034919.
The 17th Circuit Court jury needed less than two hours to issue the award to Mary Howles, 74, who claims she developed a 34-year cigarette addiction, lung cancer, and emphysema because R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris, makers of cigarettes she smoked, conspired to hide the dangers of smoking for nearly a half century.
Howles, a former surgical nurse, began smoking at 15 and continued until 1991 when she developed breathing difficulties. In 1995, doctors diagnosed her with lung cancer and emphysema, a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Doctors removed a portion of her lung as part of successful cancer treatment.
The $4 million award is about half the $8.5 million in compensatories Howles’ attorney, The Alvarez Law Firm’s Alex Avarez, requested in Thursday’s closing arguments. “Think about all the things that have happened to her, and which are going to happen to her, and what her life is going to be like,” Alvarez said. “The suffering, and the struggle for each breath that she will have until she dies.”
The Howles case is one of thousands of similar Florida lawsuits against U.S. tobacco companies. The cases arise from a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision decertifying Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a class-action tobacco case 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 such as Howles must establish a causal link between deceptive tobacco marketing, addiction, and smoking-related disease.
Monday’s verdict concluded a week-and-a-half of testimony focusing on whether Howles was addicted to cigarettes and whether she was influenced by a tobacco conspiracy to conceal smoking’s risks.
During Thursday’s closing arguments, Shook Hardy’s Walter Cofer, representing Philip Morris, described Howles as a smoker who knew cigarettes were dangerous for years but chose to continue the habit. Cofer told jurors Howles successfully quit smoking on her first committed attempt after she began having breathing troubles in 1991. “Mrs. Howles knew that smoking could be dangerous. She just didn’t think it would happen to her,” Cofer said. “But the moment it did, she put her cigarettes down and never smoked again.”
Cofer took issue with the respiratory disease caused, noting evidence that her lung function is stable and mortality tables used in the plaintiff’s case expected her to live until she was 88. There’s absolutely no evidence, no evidence that she’s going to start having exacerbations and go into a downward spiral,” Cofer said. “It hasn’t happened. She hasn’t smoked a single cigarette in 25 years. She’s never had one, single exacerbation.”
Cofer added that evidence showed Howles could have prevented any damage from the cancer or COPD if she had made a concerted effort to quit cigarettes earlier. “If Mrs. Howles quit smoking in 1983, when she knew smoking caused lung cancer and other diseases, when her husband quit because of a heart attack,” Cofer said, “we wouldn’t be here.
But Alvarez argued Howles was so addicted to nicotine she was unable to stop the habit until 1991 when she used a nicotine patch. Alvarez reminded jurors evidence, including results of the Fagerstrom Test for Nicotine Dependence, showed she was a nicotine addict. “She got the maximum on every answer,” Alvarez said. “She was heavily addicted.”
Alvarez added Howles’ addiction was built on a tobacco industry conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking, which duped Howles until it was too late for her to easily stop. Alvarez argued Howles switched to so-called light, or low-tar, cigarettes based on the industry’s false claim that light cigarettes were safer. “That [tobacco industry claim] was a lie. They knew it was a lie.” Alvarez said. “They concealed the fact that they were in a conspiracy [to hide the dangers of smoking] since 1953. They concealed that,” Alvarez said. “They knew that half of all smokers would die from a smoking-related disease. They didn’t reveal. They concealed.”
Phase two of the trial, focusing on punitive damages, begins Monday afternoon.
Email Arlin Crisco at email@example.com.
Mary Howles is represented by The Alvarez Law Firm’s Alex Alvarez and Philip Holden.
Philip Morris is represented by Shook, Hardy Bacon’s Walter Cofer and Michael Walden.
R.J. Reynolds is represented by King & Spalding's Cory Hohnbaum.
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