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UPDATE: $11.5M Verdict Includes $6M in Punitives against RJR for Nurse's Cancer Death

Posted by Arlin Crisco on May 19, 2016 10:34:39 PM


Michael Trentalange delivers his closing argument at trial against R.J. Reynolds over the lung cancer death of Jane McCabe. Jurors Thursday awarded McCabe's children $5 million in compensatory damages and found Reynolds liable for potential punitives. 


Update 5/20/16: Jurors imposed a $6.5 million punitive award against R.J. Reynolds for its part in the death of Dorothy McCabe, a former nurse and addiction counselor who smoked for more than 50 years.

The verdict, when combined with the $5 million in compensatories the jury handed down Thursday, brings the unreduced damage award to $11.5 million in the case. 

The original story follows below. 

Tampa, FL—A jury Thursday awarded $5 million to the children of a former addiction treatment counselor who died from cancer after smoking for more than five decades, and it found R.J. Reynolds liable for potential punitive damages for its role in her death. McCabe v. R.J. Reynolds, 2007-CA-017632.

Jurors awarded $1 million in compensatory damages to each of Jane McCabe’s five children after finding the lung cancer that killed McCabe, 67, in 1996 was caused by her nicotine addiction and Reynolds cigarettes. However, the verdict apportioned 70 percent of responsibility to McCabe, potentially reducing the compensatory award to $1.5 million.

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McCabe, a nurse and counselor who worked for years treating alcohol and substance abuse patients, was a daily smoker by age 14 and continued the habit for more than 53 years. Her children claim Reynolds caused their mother’s nicotine addiction and ultimately her lung cancer by hiding the dangers of smoking for decades.

Trentalange & Kelley’s Michael Trentalange requested between $12.5 million and $17.5 million in compensatory damages, or $2.5 million to $3.5 million per child, during Wednesday’s closing arguments. “It’s a hell of a thing killing a woman with cigarettes that you manufactured,” Trentalange said, harkening back to a line from Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning western, Unforgiven. “You take away all she’ll have and all she’ll ever have, and you leave a hole in the lives of her children that can’t ever be filled.”

The case is one of thousands of similar Florida lawsuits against the nation's tobacco companies. They stem from Engle v. Liggett Group, a 1994 class action claim involving Florida smokers. A jury in that case found tobacco companies knowingly produced dangerous, addictive cigarettes and hid those dangers from the public. The Florida Supreme Court decertified the class on appeal, but its decision allows individual plaintiffs to rely on the jury’s conclusions in the original trial if they can prove the smokers at the center of their cases suffered from nicotine addiction that caused a smoking-related disease.

Notably, Thursday’s verdict found Reynolds potentially liable for punitive damages despite concluding neither Reynolds’ alleged fraud nor its participation in an industry-wide conspiracy to hide the dangers of smoking caused McCabe’s addiction and cancer.

In March, the Florida Supreme Court settled a dispute among the state’s courts of appeal, and held plaintiffs could recover punitive damages on negligence and strict liability claims even if they did not prevail on fraud or concealment claims.

Trial in the case’s punitive phase will begin Friday morning.

Thursday’s verdict capped more than a week of evidence that centered largely on the whether McCabe was addicted to nicotine and whether it legally caused her cancer. During Wednesday’s closings, Jones Day’s Mark Belasic, representing Reynolds, argued McCabe considered smoking a “personal decision,” and he said McCabe, unlike typical nicotine addicts, never resumed smoking after her first serious attempt to quit. “No one ever saw her try to quit smoking until the 1990s. No one ever saw her try to put aside her cigarettes for even an hour,” said Belasic. “She chose to smoke. Now they’re saying, in effect, that she’s not responsible for that.”

But Trentalange argued McCabe’s smoking behavior, including smoking up to two-and-a-half packs of cigarettes per day, and smoking when she first awoke in the morning, bore the hallmarks of a nicotine addict. Trentalange added McCabe’s family and two experts considered McCabe addicted to nicotine in cigarettes. “It would be foolish to say that somebody that took in millions of doses of cocaine or heroin over the course of 50 years [wouldn’t] be addicted,” Trentalange said. “It’s just as implausible that somebody that took in millions of doses of nicotine in the form of a cigarette over 50-plus years is not addicted.”

Neither the parties’ attorneys nor Reynolds representatives could immediately be reached for comment.

Email Arlin Crisco at [email protected].

Related Information

James McCabe is represented by Trentalange & Kelley’s Michael Trentalange, Gordon & Doner’s Gary Paige, and Abahamson & Uiterwyk’s Paul Berg.

R.J. Reynolds is represented by Jones Day’s Mark Belasic.

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Topics: Negligence, Products Liability, tobacco, Florida, McCabe v. R.J. Reynolds