Miami, FL—Jurors Wednesday rejected defense claims that a recreational cocaine user could not be addicted to nicotine and awarded his family $6 million for the role they found R.J. Reynolds played in his fatal throat cancer. Ledo v. R.J. Reynolds, 08-113-CA-31.
Jurors awarded Mirtha Ledo and her son, Carlos, $2 million and $4 million, respectively, for the November 1996 laryngeal cancer death of Mirtha's husband, Jose Ledo. His family claims cigarette manufacturer R.J. Reynolds produced dangerous, addictive cigarettes that hooked Ledo, and covered up the dangers of smoking in a decades-long conspiracy. While the jury the rejected claims of fraud and conspiracy, it concluded punitive damages were warranted under a design defect claim. However, 11th Circuit Court Judge Migna Sanchez-Llorens subsequently granted a defense motion for a directed verdict as to punitives due to insufficient evidence.
Jurors apportioned 51% of responsibility to Ledo and 49% responsibility to Reynolds, likely reducing the post-trial award to $980,000 to Mirtha and $1.96 million to Carlos.
Ledo's case is among thousands that stem from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a Florida state court class-action lawsuit originally filed in 1994, in which jurors found for the plaintiffs against the nation's cigarette companies. The high court later decertified the class, but ruled Engle progeny cases may be tried individually. So-called Engle progeny plaintiffs are entitled to the benefit of the jury's findings in the original verdict, including the determination that tobacco companies placed a dangerous, addictive product on the market and hid the dangers of smoking, if they prove the smoker at the heart of a case suffered from nicotine addiction that was the legal cause of a smoking-related disease.
The week-long trial focused on whether Ledo, who had used cocaine recreationally for more than a decade, was addicted to cigarettes. During Tuesday's closing arguments, Reynolds attorney Jason Keehfus, of King & Spalding, questioned how Ledo could easily stop and start using cocaine with ease, yet be hopelessly addicted to nicotine.
"We know Mr. Ledo regularly used addictive substances but was not addicted. We know that Mr. Ledo used cocaine for 14 years and used it regularly. And we know that he was abstinent for prolonged periods of time," Keehfus said.
Keehfus also noted Ledo's physicians never diagnosed him as a nicotine addict. "No doctor ever told him he was addicted [to nicotine]," Keehfus told jurors. "There is not a medical record in evidence that describes him as addicted."
But jurors found Ledo's 2-pack-a-day habit compelling evidence for addiction. "A man died because R.J. Reynolds sold an addictive product that R.J. Reynolds and all the executives and employees knew would cause cancer and people would die from that cancer, and that’s what happened to Jose Ledo," said Austin Carr, attorney for the Ledo family.
Carr said Ledo's addiction was so strong he struggled to stop even when he was consumed by cancer. “[Mrs Ledo] was the one that lived with him, was closest to him…even after diagnosis of cancer and radiation treatment, he was still smoking every day, much less, but still smoking every day. And the only thing that got him to stop was having a tracheotomy," Carr said.
Austin Carr represents Mirtha and Carlos Ledo.
King & Spalding's Jason Keehfus represents R.J. Reynolds.
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