Melbourne, FL—Attorneys debated what drove a Florida man to smoke up to 2 packs of cigarettes a day for more than 30 years, even after doctors diagnosed him with the lung cancer that eventually killed him, as trial opened Tuesday against the country's two largest cigarette makers. Wallace v. Philip Morris, 2014-CA-052862.
Robert Wallace started smoking at 15 and continued every every day until his 1992 lung cancer death at 50, less than a year after his diagnosis, said Gordon & Doner's Gary Paige, who represents Wallace's widow, Fontaine. She claims Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds conspired to hide the dangers of cigarettes, including the Philip Morris-brand Parliament cigarettes Wallace smoked throughout his life.
Wallace's case stems from Engle v. Liggett Group Inc., a Florida state court class-action lawsuit originally filed in 1994. The high court later 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.
In Tuesday's openings, Paige told jurors the companies' decades-long scheme to hide the dangers of cigarettes, combined with a culture that rendered smoking popular, drove Wallace to smoke. "You have to ask yourself, why did he become a smoker? Ultimately why did he become a smoker?" Paige asked jurors. "His father smoked. He had some brothers and sisters that smoked. His mother didn’t smoke. But that was normal back then. Nowadays only 15% of Americans smoke."
Wallace's medical records show he took medication for anxiety and his doctor noted he smoked due to stress. Paige told jurors Wallace fit a target audience the cigarette companies sought to hook, and he highlighted a Philip Morris program he said found that the effects of smoking were most rewarding to people under stress.
Paige said Wallace's stress made it even harder for him to successfully quit smoking, despite his use of the nicotine gum and patch during quit attempts. "If somebody is already predisposed to anxiety, or predisposed to depression, when they try to quit, the withdrawal symptoms are that much more pronounced for them. It's that much harder for them."
However, Philip Morris attorney Walter Cofer, of Shook, Hardy & Bacon, said Wallace was well aware of the hazards of smoking decades before he ever became ill. “He just didn’t think it would happen to him. Mr. Wallace was a man who was willing to roll the dice," Cofer said.
Cofer told jurors that, although Wallace's wife wanted her husband to quit smoking even before they were married, she nonetheless bought all of his cigarettes. Cofer claimed evidence would show Wallace enjoyed smoking and never really wanted to quit.
Reynolds' attorney, Kurt Weaver, of Womble Carlyle, reminded jurors his client faced charges on conspiracy grounds only and noted Wallace never smoked a Reynolds cigarette. "No Reynolds ad was important to Robert Wallace, and no Reynolds statement was important to him," Weaver said. "There's no evidence of harm resulting to Mr. Wallace from an R.J. Reynolds act or omission."
Weaver argued there was no proof Wallace was misled by the tobacco companies on the health effects of smoking, and he claimed information on the risks of cigarettes was widely available throughout the 20th century. "The health effects [of smoking] were in the public information in the 50s, in the 60s, in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. They dominated the news," Weaver said. "Robert Wallace knew about the hazards. He knew before the warnings [about smoking] went on the label [of each cigarette pack beginning in the 1960s], and he knew after."
Trial in the case is expected to last through next week.
Gary Paige, of Gordon & Doner, represents Fontaine Wallace.
Walter Cofer, of Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP, represents Philip Morris.
Kurt Weaver, of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, LLP represents R.J. Reynolds.